What’s pushing family homelessness to record levels?

Annie Baxter Mar 2, 2015

What’s pushing family homelessness to record levels?

Annie Baxter Mar 2, 2015

Jenny Blahowski is trying to be a normal mom. On a recent afternoon she fetched two of her boys at a bus stop in a Minneapolis suburb.

“How was school?” she asked, cheerfully.

But things are not normal. The kids pile into her minivan, which is filled with stuff you’d probably keep in your home, if you had a home. Blahowski and her kids have been homeless since December. Blankets, clothes and toys fill the back of the minivan. 

Jenny Blahowski greets her boys Leon, 6, and Daniel, 9 at a bus stop outside the emergency shelter they stayed at for nearly three months in the Minneapolis suburb Shakopee.

They’ve been staying at an emergency shelter run by the nonprofit Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative. Blahowski says that’s helped a lot. But her six year-old, Leon, has been way more emotional lately. Crouched in his car seat, he peers out from under a purple ski cap with the word “LUCKY” emblazoned on it, and he begins to wail. His mom’s not sure why. His crying jag lasts about half an hour.

There are now 2.5 million homeless kids in America today, according to the National Center for Family Homelessness at the American Institutes for Research or AIR.

“These are the highest numbers on record. It’s truly epidemic levels that we’ve reached,” says John McGah, senior associate at AIR.

AIR came up with its number based on data from the U.S. Census and the Department of Education. The latter counts kids as homeless if they’re on the street; in a car or a shelter; or if they’re doubled up temporarily with friends or relatives. It’s a broader definition of homelessness than the one used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Experts say even doubling up can have bad consequences for kids. Wilder Research in St. Paul, Minn. has found that kids who are doubled up miss more school than kids in shelters, as shelters may provide transportation to school.

McGah and other experts say efforts to reduce homelessness among veterans and the chronically homeless have been successful in bringing their ranks down. But McGah says homeless kids and their families haven’t gotten the same political attention.

At the same time, rents are rising. A lot of people are priced out of the rental market. And HUD’s Section 8 housing voucher program, its largest housing subsidy program for low-income people, isn’t keeping up with demand.

“Everywhere you go, it’s either there’s a long, long wait-list or you can’t even get on the wait-list because there are so many people on the wait-list,” says Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy with the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Jenny Blahowski says her six year-old son Leon has been more emotional than usual during the three months they’ve spent in a homeless shelter in a Minneapolis suburb.

Jenny Blahowski says she’s tried to get onto several section Section 8 wait lists to no avail. Beacon Interfaith is helping her on that front.

But she also faces another issue in today’s tight rental market: landlords are extra picky. Blahowski says she’s been sober for four years but her past includes drugs and theft. Ditto for her husband, who’s now in rehab. That all puts their family at a big disadvantage.

“You don’t realize how far it will follow you even if you’ve been sober for so many years,” she says.

Still, a county program is helping Blahowski get out of the shelter and into transitional housing with three of her four kids. Her ex has custody of her oldest boy. Once her husband’s out of rehab, they’re both working, and the family has more permanent housing, Blahowski hopes to have all four boys under one roof.

“I want them to be someone that they’re proud of,” she says. “So I try my hardest to find a home for them and make sure they’re going to school and doing what they have to do.”

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