Economy's Silent and Heavy Toll on Children

Homeless rates among children are on the rise.

October 24, 2008, 4:56 PM

October 27, 2008— -- In once-booming Northern Virginia suburbs, children who never had to worry about having a roof over their head don't know where they will sleep tonight.

In Cincinnati, newly-homeless families are splitting their children up among relatives because they can't find shelter together, much less feed everyone.

In Las Vegas, sons and daughters of the city's housekeepers and kitchen workers -- already living on the margin of the American economy – increasingly rely on "weekend food bags" from their school in order to feed themselves from Friday afternoon to Monday morning, when they can eat a subsidized school breakfast.

Welcome to the economic crisis for thousands of Americans too young to have a mortgage, a retirement account, or the right to vote.

"Normally we would get a few calls – now, our phones are ringing all day long," says Kathi Sheffel, coordinator for homeless services for Fairfax County Public Schools.

In Fairfax as in many other school areas, homelessness among students is up about 25 percent from last year – and last year's figures were a sad increase from the year before, according to First Focus, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan group which pushes to improve public policies that affect children. The group is conducting its second annual survey on homelessness among students.

"We now have families that are more middle-class, that have run into issues they didn't expect and have become homeless," explains Fairfax's Sheffel. Some families lost their home after defaulting on a home loan or a parent lost a job, she says, but many became homeless because the home they rented was foreclosed upon when their landlord didn't pay the mortgage.

When children lose a home, their health – and studies – suffer. "Kids in greater number are coming to school who probably haven't eaten breakfast. Who don't have access to a washer and a dryer. Who live with fear," explains Karen Fessler, a school official in Cincinnati, Ohio. "How important is a long division problem when they don't know where they're going to sleep tonight?"

The New Homeless

In Cincinnati, homelessness among students is also up more than 25 percent from last year, according to Fessler, the homeless education liaison for the city's schools. Families are having to split up to survive, she explains.

"It reminds me of stories my mom told me about the Depression," says Fessler. "People with three, four, five children are having to farm their children out" because it is financially or logistically impossible to stay together, she says.

The new homeless in Cincinnati, says Fessler, aren't from the ranks of the chronically poor, but are families whose tenuous livelihoods are being crushed by the fallout of the economic crisis.

"We're seeing that more families who were living on the edge, paycheck to paycheck, who can't make it anymore," she says. "Families who were just barely hanging on, now. . . can't hold it together."

"It's alarming," says Phillip Lovell, a policy expert at First Focus, discussing how the economic meltdown is hitting kids. But just as alarming, he says, is that no one is talking about the plight of children when they talk about the troubled economy.

"You'll hear next to nothing from most politicians about how this is effecting kids and what they're going to do about it," says Lovell.

In Las Vegas, many of the 600 children who attend Whitney Elementary call home the "daily-weekly-monthly" hotels that ring its small campus -- including the massive Sportsman's Royal Manor, whose medieval-themed architecture led the schoolchildren to call it "The Castle."

Lunchtime at Whitney is where you can see the real effects of the economic crisis, says school counselor Vicki Bustos. At Whitney, 85 percent of her students now qualify for a free or reduced-price meal.

"It's tremendously worse – we can see the hunger in the lunchroom," Bustos says. "There's less food for them at home now. For a lot of them, lunch is their only meal."

The foreclosure crisis has battered Las Vegas, and the economic meltdown it triggered has kept the Strip in the worst business slump it's seen in at least a quarter century. That means fewer jobs for the parents of Whitney's Elementary's students, says Bustos. Some leave town. Others double-up in other families' apartments. For most, resources to feed, clothe and care for their sons and daughters is stretched to breaking.

Weekend Food Bags

Three years ago, Whitney officials realized many students had no food to eat over the weekend -- in fact, were taking ketchup packets home from the school cafeteria to eat for dinner. Rounding up donations from local businesses, they started putting together "weekend food bags" of pop-top canned goods, Slim Jims, and other food that needs no preparation, since most of the families' short-term apartments have no kitchens.

Last year, says Bustos, they handed out 120 or so bags each week. This year, they're up to 161 a week, and expect to be giving out 250 per week by Christmas.

Of course, the economic downturn also hits those trying to stave off its impact. While many of Whitney Elementary's programs rely on private donations, the Clark County, Nev. school district is worried its tax-funded homeless aid programs will face cuts soon.

In Cincinnati, the nonprofit which supports the school system's homeless services has struggled to raise money to meet the students' needs.

That frustrates youth advocates, who see hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars going to bail out financial giants, while children are suffering.

"The bailout and everything – how is it really going to cycle back down to the individual person?" asks Fessler in Cincinnati. "When are we going to see the impact of that on an individual, human being level?"

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