A rapidly growing segment of the homeless population consists of families where one or both parents work. And children form the largest single segment of homeless people.
"The fastest-growing group in need of emergency services are working families," said Nancy Amidei, keynote speaker at a conference on behalf of homeless children and youths in Utah. Amidei is a former National Public Radio commentator and the Belle Spafford Visiting Professor at the University of Utah. The conference, held Friday in Salt Lake City, was sponsored by the Utah State Office of Education and the U.'s Graduate School of Social Work."There's something badly wrong when a growing number of kids have no place to call home. Children should not be homeless," she said. "When you think about what to do about the problems of homeless kids, think about decent wages for their parents. A family with a child or two, probably could not with a minimum-wage job get off the streets."
Amidei said research shows three basic facts about poverty in the United States. They are on average very young. The United States is the only industrialized nation where the largest group of poor are children.
The poor are getting poorer, she said, with an increasing number - 40 percent - of families living at less than half the federal poverty guideline.
Estimates from the Department of Education put the number of school-age homeless children at about 220,000 and suggest one-third are not regularly in school. The National Coalition for the Homeless disagrees. That organization puts the number much higher - 500,000-750,000 homeless school-aged children, at least half of them not regularly in school.
"Whether you accept the low estimate or the high, it's way too many children," Amidei said. "In some ways, we owe a kind of spooky debt to the homeless. There's no way to be homeless in private. It makes up stop and realize we have a lot of poverty."
"Experts" argue about whether homeless children should be "mainstreamed" in education or whether they are already dealing with so many problems, including stigma, that they should be educated away from the general population. But no one argues, she said, that they should be educated.
"Experts agree that most kids are very resilient. They bounce back," said Amidei. Years later, children who lived in a car with their parents may refer to those days as "camping out."
"But the longer they're homeless, the harder it is to undo the effects of homelessness." Over a year or more, she said, the child may suffer long-term damage.