As the more fortunate of us revel in the comfort and joy of the holidays, thousands of people are on the streets with no place to seek shelter from the rasping, cold winds that blow across America. These are America's homeless, and many of them are mere children.
No one knows the exact number of people who wander the streets, with some studies estimating at least 3 million.
Tragically, one survey found that children under the age of 18 account for 25% of the urban homeless population. In New York, an astonishing 40% of the homeless were children.
Consider these facts on homeless people from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty:
37-40% are families with children
25% are children
25-30% are mentally disabled
30-40% are veterans
40% are drug or alcohol dependent.
There has been a lot of publicity lately about getting the homeless off the streets--not for their welfare but for the safety and aesthetics of the community. But where are they supposed to go? According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, a recent study of 30 U.S. cities found that 26% of all requests for emergency shelter went unmet due to a lack of resources. Other studies list the figure as high as 32% for homeless families.
Families with children comprise one of the fastest growing segments of the homeless population. Poverty and the lack of affordable housing are the principle causes.
The impact of homelessness on families is severe. Children experience worse health, more developmental delays, more depression and behavior problems, and lower achievements in education. Parents suffer more depression, attempt suicide more often, and suffer worse health. Another threat to homeless families is being separated and children placed into foster care.
Perhaps the most tragic victims of homelessness are the children. It is estimated that in America today there are more than 2 million children who are homeless, runaways, or throwaways. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, children who are thrown out of their homes number approximately 100,000.
To survive, the children are forced to steal, beg, rummage through dumpsters and garbage, or sell their bodies sexually. Many die extremely brutal deaths, alone or with other children who are forced to share their fate. Many who avoid death are victims of malnutrition and mental illness.
Others leave home after years of physical, mental, or sexual abuse. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than half of the young people interviewed in a study during shelter stays reported that their parents either told them to leave or knew they were leaving and did not care.
Homeless children face many challenges on the streets. Few are housed in emergency shelters because of a shortage of beds for youth, shelter admission policies, and their fear of being recognized. Since many are under 16, they cannot earn enough money to meet their basic needs. They find that exchanging sex for food, clothing, and shelter is their only chance of surviving on the streets. As a result, they are at a greater risk of contracting AIDS or HIV-related illnesses.
These young people have difficulty attending school because of insufficient records, no transportation, residency requirements, and lack of a legal guardian. As a result, they face severe challenges in getting an education and supporting themselves financially. They also are victims severe anxiety and depression, poor health and nutrition, and lack of self-esteem.
Sadly, these are afflictions suffered by the homeless of all ages. Fortunately, there are ways the homeless can be helped. First, their immediate needs must be provided (a place to sleep and something to eat). They also need jobs that pay livable wages, access to affordable childcare and health care, transportation, education and training. But without affordable, decent housing, people cannot keep their jobs.
One person or one group cannot do it all. But with a little more effort on all our parts, we can help ease--and work toward ending--homelessness in America. The true spirit of Christmas is giving, not receiving.
As we move into the third millennium, if each one of us would commit to help one person a month--whether by donating our money, time or talents to those less fortunate than ourselves--we would truly make our world a better place to live.