Why Are More Children Homeless than Ever Before?

child homelessness

Child homelessness is simultaneously more prevalent and less visible than ever in the United States. Dramatic shifts in social structure are behind the crisis, but the crisis itself is also obscured.

Read on for a harrowing look at the lives of homeless children, how we arrived here as a nation, and what we can do to turn things around.

Counted Out Before Their Time: A Homeless Child’s Story

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2013 marked the year America’s child homeless population reached “historically high rates,” with studies suggesting as many as 2.5 million or one in 30 children were forced to endure the hardship of homelessness.

A subsequent study entitled “America’s Youngest Outcasts: A Report Card on Child Homelessness” showed an 8% uptick in child homelessness between 2012 and 2013.

Even so, the campaign to portray homelessness as a condition affecting much older people for drastically different reasons prevailed in the media. In fact, a campaign challenging that child homelessness is on the rise continues to this day, despite all the available data.

Think about it this way. When NIMBYs crusade their cause of shuffling homeless people from one street corner to the next, they do so under the guise that they are protecting schoolchildren. Their sentiments fail to recognize that homeless people might also be schoolchildren. The data suggests they often are.

The problem is in the calculation method, not the numbers.

School statistical information suggests that millions of children are enduring homelessness. However, a homeless person’s so-called “average age” is continuously reported as middle-aged. This discrepancy exists because of flaws in PIT counts, the current statistical snapshot nationally used to quantify homelessness annually.

As School House Connection thoughtfully points out, each year, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sets out to quantify homelessness, they do so by scouring the city streets and homeless shelters for just one night in the dead of winter at a time when homeless people are much less likely to be visible and therefore counted.

They also look for homelessness in places homeless children and families are less likely to be found. These counts occur at a time of year when the children are less likely to be homeless. Common sense suggests that “coincidences” that work to push a harmful narrative are rarely coincidences at all.

From the sofas of family members or relatives, in the parking lots of superstores, and in hotel rooms all across the country, there are homeless children with lives uncounted and stories untold.

Homeless Statistics According to the National Center for Homeless Education

Alas, other data does exist. And it clearly paints a very different portrait of child homelessness.

The National Center for Homeless Education, a federal information center for the US Department of Education, published a Federal Data Summary for school years 2015-16 and 2017-18. This research confirmed approximately 1,508,265 homeless school-aged students, reflecting a 15% increase from the previous 2015-2016 school year. This is even more alarming, considering 2013 marked the historical high. It looks like things have only trended upward since then.

It’s important to remember that these statistics only account for school-aged children who have not dropped out and are currently enrolled in a public K-12 curriculum. Unfortunately, homeless children are 87% more likely to drop out of school than their housed peers. More than half of them are under 6, the age most children begin kindergarten.

As you can see, even when homeless children are counted, they are undercounted. Worst of all, they are counted out.

Undercounting is at the Heart of the Problem

Dr. Ellen L. Bassuk, MD, is the former president and founder of The National Center on Family Homelessness. She explained that because HUD drastically undercounts precariously housed families whose homelessness is often hidden, their needs are seldom met, much less acknowledged politically.

This has allowed child and youth homelessness to surge quietly, just under the radar. It simmers beneath the surface of a failed social structure. As that structure shifts further toward desolate poverty and single parenthood, the coming generation faces never-before-seen obstacles and unfathomably bleak odds.

Aside from being undercounted, other common causes also make families and their innocent children homeless and vulnerable. Among them are:

  • A lack of affordable housing
  • Insufficient income
  • Single parenthood
  • Domestic violence
  • Excessive poverty
  • Extreme rent burden
  • Systemic racism
  • Unexpected illness
  • Unemployment
  • Death of a parent or caretaker
  • Aging out of the foster care system and more

To put things into perspective, families accounted for just 1% of the homeless population back in 1988. Today, they make up at least 36% of the homeless community.

The pendulum of social justice is swinging in favor, mostly of homeless criminalization. Meanwhile, the scales of empathy are tipped slightly toward homeless veterans. Where does this leave our children, who hold the fate of our future?

School is in Session. It’s Time to Contact Your Local Legislators

We are on the edge of the 2022-23 school calendar year. If 2018 is any indication of what’s in store, there are already 1,508,265 empty desks where homeless students who should be seated are instead abandoned by the world. Undercounting hidden homeless families and under-reporting the child homeless crisis has created an atmosphere where child homelessness can only increase.

Pushing policies that criminalize homelessness is not protecting school children. Instead, it is placing them directly in harm’s way. Please talk to your local policymakers about reviewing all available federal data and addressing this crisis like the emergency it is.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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