Chicago News Cooperative: Study – Dramatic Rise in Homeless Children

December 13, 2011

By Meribah Knight

The number of homeless children in Illinois increased by 88 percent between 2006 and 2010, according to a study released today.

The report from The National Center on Family Homelessness, “America’s Youngest Outcasts 2010,” ranked Illinois 29th of 50 states in child homelessness. The category is defined as the percentage of homeless children out of all children in the state.

About 58,000 children in Illinois were homeless in 2010, up from 30,636 in 2006, according to the study.

“Illinois, like most of the states in the country, had a steady increase in homelessness in the period of time that we looked at,” said Ellen Bassuk, the founder and president of The National Center on Family Homelessness.

Nationally, the study reported that 1.6 million children, or one in 45, were homeless in 2010, a 38 percent increase from 2007.

A surge in foreclosures and a state unemployment rate higher than the national average—10.1 percent in October—contributed to Illinois’ rising numbers, Bassuk said. Illinois ranked 42nd in home foreclosures.

Another measure of child homelessness, the composite ranking, uses data from research groups, the Census and enrollment numbers of homeless students collected by the Department of Education through the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Illinois’ composite ranking was 20th among the 50 states, up from 13 and 19 in 2006 and 2007, respectively.

The study does not include unaccompanied homeless youth, who do not have an adult in their lives.

“We know it’s an undercount,” Bassuk said. “But there is no way to know how much.”

The study uses the United States Department of Education’s definition of homeless: “individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” That includes individuals doubled up — staying with friends or family — a key indicator, according to most experts.

“Homelessness is not about houselessness,” Bassuk said. “A home is a lot more than bricks and mortar.”

While the study paints a stark picture of family and child homelessness across the country, Illinois compares favorably–13th out of 50– for its policy and planning efforts to help homeless children.

Yet it comes as spending on homeless services are cut year after year, which advocates said inevitably thwarts planning efforts.

“In Illinois we take things a little piece at a time,” said Julie Dworkin, director of policy at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. As a result, she said, the state’s strategy for homeless services “is kind of fragmented.”

Most states have a similarly piecemeal approach to homeless policy, Bassuk said.

“Your planning efforts have been very good,” she said of Illinois. “Because homelessness crosses a lot of different agencies—housing, income, childcare, kids—It’s hard to [plan] in a coordinated an cohesive way. I think a lot of states have that problem.”

On Nov. 29, the Illinois General Assembly approved a measure to restore funding for state grants for homeless outreach programs. The action prevented a proposed $4.7 million reduction of state financing, a 52 percent cut, for emergency and transitional housing that Gov. Pat Quinn approved as part of the 2012 state budget.

It was a small victory for advocates who have been working to restore a number of proposed state budget cuts in homeless services.

Still, funding for the Illinois Homeless Prevention Program, which provides rental assistance with one-time grants averaging about $900 to aid those facing eviction or foreclosure, has been reduced by 87 percent since fiscal year 2008 – from $11 million to $1.5 million.

“We were probably one of the leaders in homelessness prevention until we completely decimated that program. That has been a really big setback,” Dworkin said. She added that significant portions of those who receive help by the prevention program are families with children.