Do They Count? Homeless Children and COVID-19

Yvonne Vissing and Diane Nilan

Homeless children are regularly out of sight, thus out of mind. These are the children who invisibly live in cars, motels, campgrounds, shelters, doubled-up with others, couch-surfing, and in locations not safe or suitable for human habitation — places they call home. As government is attempting to address the coronavirus, or COVID-19, millions of homeless children don’t rate even an afterthought, although they are more at risk than their housed peers. Their health deserves protection as much as government officials’ children, for their sake and ours.

The National Center for Homeless Education reported the latest US Department of Education statistics showing over 1.5 million homeless students were identified in 2018, an 11% increase over the previous school year and the highest number ever recorded. This represents just students identified, and does not include those too young to be in school, at least 1.4 million homeless babies and toddlers, or those who don’t attend school. At a minimum of 3 million, they are, therefore, not an insignificant population. If they were old enough to vote, they would be a large enough constituent group to garner attention as a political force.

Schools around the nation are being asked to close in order to stop the spread of the coronavirus. From an epidemiological perspective, it is imperative to stop the transmission of the virus, and avoiding crowds is a realistic way to do so. The problem is, for homeless students it cuts off their main source of social stability and support. Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, observes that, “For many of these children and youth, public schools are their best — and often only — source of support.” School is their only safety net, offering food, education, health and mental health services, caring adults, and a safe place to be during the day.

But homeless primary and secondary students aren’t the only ones who suffer when schools close — so do college students. Studies estimate that between 20% and 46% of college students may be housing insecure. Closing school means they lose their housing with nowhere else to go; they lose access to food, libraries, wifi, and can’t get their school work done either.

In a country where over 41 million people regularly go hungry, school offers food security. Community efforts to provide hot meals, where families and individuals go for food assistance, means large crowds such as those found at Portland, Maine’s largest soup kitchen which serves 300 people at each meal. In this city, on any given night, 400–500 men, women, and children are homeless. The exponential growth of homelessness affects not just big cities, but also small towns and rural areas lacking adequate resources.

The closure of schools and early learning programs, or the move to online learning, impacts the health, safety, and well-being of homeless children and youth. For children staying in shelters, their families typically must leave early in the morning and cannot return until evening. Schools provide a safety zone for children during that time, but when they are closed, where can children go to be safe and warm, much less recover from illness? Without access to school tech resources, online learning is impossible especially if libraries, recreation centers and other places where they could go are closed, leaving the education of millions of students in jeopardy.

Homelessness, and its companion poverty, guarantees a host of devastating health problems on a good day. Certainly, the coronavirus outbreak has shattered any thought of a good day, as well as destroyed any myths about our nation’s health care delivery system for all populations, especially those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Typical shelter scene. Photo Diane Nilan

Homelessness, by its very nature, implies greater risk of getting sick. Respiratory problems, diabetes and other chronic diseases are common. Being homeless means being exposed to harsher environmental hazards. Trauma impacts both physical and mental health. Hunger is a given, as is the lack a regular, safe place to sleep. Personal hygiene is a challenge, whether showering, hand-washing or having clean clothes to wear. Having no place of their own to call home, they may be crowded in shelters, doubled-up with others, or staying in places exposed to whatever health conditions others may have. So far, only one homeless person nationwide has tested positive for the virus. But compromised immune systems and untreated health problems, like asthma and other pulmonary conditions, combined with homelessness and exposure to COVID-19 guarantees catastrophic outcomes.

When homeless children get sick, they lack the basics: a bed to sleep in, a refrigerator to get a cool drink to help lower a fever, a stove to heat chicken soup, much less medical care or even over-the-counter remedies. Homeless children and families have nowhere to shelter in place or be quarantined. Transportation to get medical care is difficult. In many states, unaccompanied minors cannot consent to or receive medical care of any sort.

This pandemic epitomizes the incalculable disparity between the haves and have-nots, which boils down to a dreadful reality if you are among the millions experiencing homelessness. Even without COVID-19 to amplify the risks of homelessness, formidable challenges impact impoverished, housing-insecure families, impairing their health and well-being.

References to causes of homelessness typically chalk it up to “mental illness” and/or “addictions,” two pejorative labels applied to homelessness but not restricted to the unhoused population. While these disorders certainly have an impact on causing and perpetuating homelessness, it’s much more complicated than those conditions imply.

The following chart, designed by Diane Nilan, describes the multiplicity of factors that intersect to result in homelessness for children. Until these realities are recognized and dealt with, efforts to “end homelessness” will be as ineffective as efforts to eliminate the coronavirus.

changing the paradigm of homelessness book cover
changing the paradigm of homelessness book cover

Society contributes mightily to the creation of homelessness. Inept social policies fail to prevent it in the first place, contribute to its growth, and neglect to provide ample assistance necessary to effectively address it. The question of what can be done about homelessness begs a new approach. Our new book, Changing the Paradigm of Homelessness, examines the causes of homelessness and what can be done about it. We point out why so many strategies have failed — and we promote a paradigm change that could actually alleviate the majority of homelessness.

But our advice to change the paradigm about how to prevent and decrease homelessness is falling on deaf ears much like the call for social distancing as a way to minimize COVID-19.

The White House and Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) have to this point not moved to deploy emergency funding for homelessness. The bipartisan agreement recently approved by the House lacked any measures aimed at homelessness, despite concerns raised by advocacy groups to congressional lawmakers. The measures announced by President Trump omitted any specific provision for homelessness. HUD Secretary Ben Carson reported that the feckless Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would respond to the potentially massive increase in need for shelters. At a time when a cohesive, effective approach to homelessness is needed — as the COVID-19 crisis fiercely unfolds — no long-range plan exists. The federal response to the coronavirus outbreak fails to spare a dime to those most in need. The “Families First Coronavirus Response Act” (H.R. 6201), which supposedly guarantees free coronavirus testing, secures paid emergency leave, enhances unemployment insurance, strengthens food security initiatives, and increases federal Medicaid funding to states, entirely neglects the urgent needs of people experiencing homelessness. Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, argues, “Providing resources to protect against an outbreak of coronavirus among people who are homeless is not only a moral imperative, it’s an urgent public health necessity.”


As spending priorities are being drastically reshaped by this crisis, we urge that the needs of homeless children for the healthcare, schooling, and other supports must also be included. SchoolHouse Connection recommends the following provisions be put in place immediately for homeless children:

· At least $300 million for the Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY), with flexible uses of funds to meet the emergent, temporary housing, education, health, safety, and transportation needs of homeless children and youth whose schools have closed;

· Increased early childhood and child care support for children and families experiencing homelessness;

· Aid to college students to access to food, housing, health care, and child care, as well as devices and connection to the internet; and

· Emergency shelter, eviction prevention, and other housing assistance.

In addition, we support the request of the National Network for Youth for:

· At least $128 million for the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act program. Funding should bypass the usual competitive grant process, and be distributed to existing grantees, to help them provide temporary housing and health care to youth and young adults.

· At least $22 million for the Service Connection for Youth on the Streets. Funding should bypass the usual competitive grant process, and be distributed to existing grantees based on demonstrated need related to COVID-19 outbreaks.

Any good leader recognizes that crises brings opportunities. The COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis. Homelessness is a crisis for individuals who experience it, and for the nation as a social problem. These two crises have converged and demand our attention. They provide us an opportunity to change the course of the future for the better for countless people who have been systematically and summarily ignored for decades. As their existence, and their dire conditions rise to our attention, our response will determine the nature of our humanity, or lack thereof.

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 15 yrs. on US backroads.

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