By Rachelle Levitt
Recently, I learned that the television program Sesame Street is exploring homelessness and its effect on children. The show is reintroducing Lily, a 7-year-old who first joined the cast in 2011 as a character whose family didn’t consistently have enough food to eat. In a story arc that will be presented on YouTube, Lily’s family will come to Sesame Street to stay with friends after losing their apartment.
In a press release highlighting the importance of this issue, Sherrie Westin, president of global impact and philanthropy at Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street, said, “We know children experiencing homelessness are often caught up in a devastating cycle of trauma — the lack of affordable housing, poverty, domestic violence, or other trauma that caused them to lose their home, the trauma of actually losing their home, and the daily trauma of the uncertainty and insecurity of being homeless.
HUD’s Annual Homeless Assessment Reports (AHARs) are an important tool for understanding homelessness in the United States. The report presents the results of the annual Point-in-Time Count, which tracks homelessness by providing a snapshot of those experiencing homelessness on one night during the last 10 days of January. According to the report, on that night in January 2018, HUD counted more than 111,000 homeless children, including 98,000 children served in programs for sheltering homeless families.
Another HUD report, Family Options Study: 3-Year Impacts of Housing and Services Interventions for Homeless Families, presents evidence highlighting the positive role that HUD housing assistance can have on the well-being of homeless families and children. Families participating in the Family Options Study were randomly assigned into groups following a stay of at least 7 days in an emergency shelter. Families in the group that received a permanent housing subsidy, often a Housing Choice Voucher, were less likely to be in a shelter in the 7-37 month period following assignment, the number of school absences for their children was lower after 20 months, and the number of behavior problems was lower 37 months after assignment than families that did not receive priority housing assistance.
HUD and other federal agencies also work with state and local partners on various programs to end homelessness that provide support to children and families. On July 13, 2018, HUD announced $43 million in grant funding through the Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program for 11 communities to use to end youth homelessness. HUD sought the input of young people experiencing homelessness when crafting every step of the program, from designing the demonstration to the actual application review process.
“Young people who are victims of abuse, family conflict, or aging out of foster care are especially vulnerable to homelessness,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson said in a press release announcing the Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program. “We’re working with our local partners to support innovative new approaches to help young people find stable housing, break the cycle of homelessness and lead them on a path to self-sufficiency.”
Promisingly, the 2018 AHAR report notes that nationally, the number of homeless people in families with children counted that night declined by 2 percent, or 3,998 people, compared with the 2017 Point-in-Time count, and the number of homeless family households also declined by 2 percent, or 1,544 households. The count also found that more than half of all homeless people in families with children were in concentrated in four states, with nearly 30 percent of all people in families with children experiencing homelessness in New York alone. Between 2017 and 2018, 12 states saw increases in the number of people in families with children experiencing homelessness. The largest increases were in Massachusetts and Connecticut, each of which had more than 500 additional people in families experiencing homelessness in 2018 than in 2017.
Families with children and youth experiencing homelessness can continue to seek permanent and temporary assistance from HUD-funded programs. According to Sesame Workshop, the creators of Sesame Street hope that the storyline featuring Lily will “offer help and hope to the growing number of young children across the United States who are experiencing homelessness,” as well as “help mitigate the impact of the trauma and stigma that result from homelessness.” Although many HUD programs are working to meet the physical housing needs of children experiencing homelessness, I find it helpful that programs such as Sesame Street are raising public awareness of the issue.