* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
We must not let the pandemic prevent opportunities for families and children experiencing homelessness
Barbara Duffield is the Executive Director of SchoolHouse Connection, a national non-profit organization working to overcome homelessness through education.
COVID-19 has turned every aspect of our personal and working lives upside down. We’re all familiar with feelings of anxiety, frustration, or fear for our health and the health of loved ones, especially with cases rising at alarming rates.
Now imagine you don’t have a safe, permanent place to call home. You don’t have space to distance and protect yourself and your children from getting infected. Shelters are closed or at-capacity due to social distancing restrictions. You try to sleep, not knowing if you’ll sleep in the same place tomorrow. You don’t know when you’ll eat next, or how you’ll get hygiene supplies - a struggle made harder by school building closures, where at least your children could access food and basic resources, health services, and emotional support. You don’t always have wifi where you stay and are unsure how to get a tablet or computer so your child can participate in distance learning and keep up with their schoolwork - which is alarming since high school completion is the best hope for escaping homelessness as adults.
This is the reality of living through a pandemic for millions of families, children, and youth who are homeless. Earlier this year, public schools reported a record of 1.5 million children and youth experiencing homelessness nationwide - a number larger than the population of Dallas, or New Hampshire, that will only increase without the support of open school facilities this fall. With mass unemployment, no protection against proposed eviction bans, and difficulties accessing rental assistance, family homelessness is expected to spike long-term as it becomes even harder for families to remain safely sheltered and housed.
Yet even with an intense focus by federal leaders on relief and recovery legislation, children, youth, and families experiencing homelessness have been largely shut out of response measures. Recent relief legislation - the CARES and HEROES Acts - failed to dedicate funding to the critical programs, professionals, and systems that are best equipped to identify and support children and youth who are homeless. Seeing our communities through this pandemic means seeing everyone through, yet those disproportionately impacted are getting left behind.
The CARES Act, for example, simply gave states funding to spend on a range of COVID-19 education-related needs - but there is no guarantee that states direct any of this funding to the proven programs that are laser-focused on supporting homeless children and youth. What’s worse is that the tragically invisible but pervasive nature of this crisis is not recognized by the federal agency in charge of homeless assistance. Homeless children, youth, and families often move from couches, to motels, to cars, or any space that offers temporary shelter. Yet, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s current definition of homelessness - staying in shelters or on the street - doesn't capture this particularly mobile, vulnerable, and hidden population. That means millions of children, youth, and families are being locked out of vital channels of federal support.
Across the country, school districts, early childhood programs, and community-based organizations are working tirelessly to fill the gaps - going to extensive lengths to identify, shelter, feed and expand digital access for those in need. These efforts often rely on boosts from federal aid. Our leaders have opportunities to provide much-needed support for frontline organizations who serve people experiencing homelessness - such as the Emergency Family Stabilization Act (EFSA), a bipartisan, bicameral bill that would direct flexible funding to organizations on the ground uniquely positioned to help families in need.
Ultimately, policymakers must recognize that taking action to respond to the pandemic encompasses so much more than the immediate next step. Homelessness is already traumatic, and the upheaval of a pandemic only deepens trauma and intensifies lifelong impacts on the health, stability, and well-being of millions of families. While it is a critical next step to include relief legislation like the EFSA in the upcoming COVID-19 relief package, the ultimate goal is to commit to breaking generational cycles of homelessness and to not allow this pandemic to further erode the promises of opportunity for all that we tout.
Yes, we want to see our communities recover from this crisis. But if we leave millions of children and families behind in the process, can we honestly call that recovery? We must do whatever we can now to ensure that this pandemic does not exacerbate another horrific crisis - one whose recovery will take far longer.