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Children's Voice Article, July/August 2004

Executive Directions

by Shay Bilchik

When most of us recall the summer months of our childhood, we think of the thrill of that last day of school, an afternoon at a local pool or a nearby lake, riding bikes with the neighborhood kids, going to see fireworks, or enjoying picnics at a local park.

But for some of the children served by our allies in the field, summer is a considerably more trying time of the year. Although most of us associate homelessness with people asking for change on the street corner in the cold of winter, a significant percentage of the homeless population consists of families with children who are turned out onto the streets in the summer.

Much of the evidence is anecdotal, but our members and my colleagues in our housing division point out plenty of reasons why many of the 1.35 million children who experience homelessness each year find themselves struggling during the summer months.

An alarming number of poor families suffer in overcrowded situations year round, which makes life uncomfortable in the winter, but downright intolerable in the summer as temperatures rise and tempers flare. So although family members and friends may hesitate to turn people out into the cold, they may be more likely to issue an ultimatum in the summer. By the same token, landlords are often reluctant to evict families in the winter and may wait for milder temperatures to allay any guilt they feel.

Many families also make big decisions and big changes when the school year ends. Poor families are more willing to take risks and move to a new city in search of better job opportunities in the summer months. But often that big start in a new city lands a family in a shelter when the opportunity doesn't pan out. And, sadly, victims of domestic violence often remain at home months longer than they might otherwise, putting off their departure until children finish classes.

The importance of stable housing and economic security in a child's life can't be overstated. Children living in owned or affordably rented homes consistently fare better on health, developmental, and academic variables than do their precariously housed peers.

At the heart of this issue for many of us at CWLA is the fact that families in the child welfare system are disproportionately challenged by economic insecurity. Consequently, inadequate housing has become a major factor contributing to the placement and retention of children in foster care.

In fact, in terms of reunification, even substance abuse is not as important a factor as income or housing in determining whether children will return to their families. Of the children served by the child welfare system, as many as 30% could be reunited with their parents if safe, affordable housing were available. Meanwhile young people aging out of the child welfare system must confront the harsh reality of the gap between the wages they are qualified to earn and the cost of housing.

From our end, we support community partnerships like the Family Unification Program that match housing resources and supportive services to struggling families and former foster youth. CWLA has trained hundreds of child welfare workers to build partnerships with faith-based agencies, local nonprofit housing agencies, and public housing authorities to access housing subsidies for families and youth.

But FUP and other important family programs have been neglected in the federal government's current focus on chronic homelessness. As a result, for the first time in a decade, no new vouchers were awarded for FUP in FYs 2002 and 2003.

CWLA continues to advocate at the federal level for FUP, and locally with public housing authorities, to create local preferences for homeless families in the child welfare system. But in the absence of adequate federal resources and local-level coordination to intervene and prevent family homelessness, child welfare agencies often are in the unenviable position of separating families to protect children from the lingering effects of homelessness.

Fortunately, agencies are already doing much to address the problem. They're coordinating clothing drives, often focusing on gathering business attire appropriate for job interviews. Those in the faith community are donating a portion of the congregation's charitable giving to shelters and food banks. Domestic violence shelters are reaching out to law enforcement to make sure victims immediately receive the resources they need to stay safe.

Medical professionals are training people on the link between health care and homelessness. Schools are coordinating afterschool programs so working parents have one less thing to worry about. And private corporations are offering flexible hours to employees, coordinating volunteer efforts and food donations.

People naturally think of those in need during the winter months, when giving is on our mind and the chill of winter tugs at our coat sleeves, but let's remind our supporters that even when it's sunny and 80 degrees outside, many families are facing a forecast that isn't quite so bright.

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