Every night in Pennsylvania thousands of children sleep in homeless shelters. Can we measure what the awful experience of being homeless can do to a child? Perhaps not, but we can see what it is costing us in dollars, which is quite a bit more than it would cost to simply provide housing.
The People’s Emergency Center examined 13 cost categories associated with child homelessness, including physical and mental health, social services and housing, early development and education, and costs associated with high school dropout. For the 9,027 children in Pennsylvania who slept at least one night in a shelter in 2011, these were more than costly problems; these categories are the grim reality they face.
The most basic of these categories is health. Most parents wonder, “Is my child healthy?” Homeless children are more likely than their peers to suffer from certain chronic health conditions such as asthma, anemia, chronic ear infections, and lead toxicity. Mental health issues arise from homelessness that could span a lifetime. Medical bills could add up to a few thousand dollars per child.
Homeless children are also more likely to need early intervention services and special education, which increases the cost of education. Plus, homeless students are at a much greater risk of dropping out of high school. Lost wages, social services, and the increased likelihood of incarceration contribute to more costs.
If we add it all together, we come up with an average annual cost per child of $40,079 and a total annual marginal cost of child homelessness of $363,205,374 in Pennsylvania. If we compare this to the $6,419 average cost of a child who is not homeless, one cannot help but wonder why ending homelessness is not a more desired outcome of our society.
The state’s Homeless Assistance Program and Human Services Development Fund (HSDF) support emergency housing and homeless prevention programs, but funding is far from adequate. This year the allocation was cut again.
The People’s Emergency Center in Philadelphia and the Interfaith Shelter for Homeless Families, operated by Catholic Charities and located in Harrisburg, are two organizations attempting to help but are constricted by funding problems. “As funding continues to dry up, it becomes an even bigger challenge to locate additional financial resources, and the fear of these cuts eventually impacting the continuation of services is of great concern”, said Hilary Hoover, the program director for Interfaith Shelter for Homeless Families.
Joe Willard of the People’s Emergency Center expressed similar concerns, saying that the resources used by centers are actually very good, but the lack of funding is limiting.
Willard said that “child homelessness in Pennsylvania is not just a problem, it’s a crisis.”
Child homelessness grows each year; for the first time in U.S. history the number of homeless children nationwide has exceeded 1 million. Willard said that this is not just a concern for large cities like Philadelphia; although with one of the highest poverty rates in the country Philadelphia has severe child homelessness problems. The problem exists across the state with homeless families reportedly living under bridges, in camps, and in state parks.
Despite the potential financial challenges, Hoover said, “As for the Interfaith Shelter, we will continue to serve children and families who are homeless. We will continue to carry out the mission to help the poor, and will trust that God will continue to provide for our financial needs despite the devastating cuts ahead.”
In these difficult economic times, the taxpayers must make tough decisions about which programs to support, but the facts speak for themselves: we cannot afford child homelessness.
August 2012. This article was written by Diana Hamlin, 2012 summer intern at the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference – the public affairs arm of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops and the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania. Stay up-to-date with Catholic news and issues at pacatholic.org, www.facebook.com/pacatholic, and www.twitter.com/pacatholic.