There is a school of thought, one that has some merit, which suggests there is little that government can do to cure the plight of homelessness. That many people prefer to live on the streets. That many people are reaping the results of their own actions in their inability to secure and maintain housing.
There is much evidence, after all, that the best intentions of governments and a large increase in public spending have done little to mitigate what continues to be a growing problem. Yet those arguments are scuttled by the realization that many victims of the current homeless crisis are children — those who are the most vulnerable and those for whom the situation is creating lifelong issues.
According to a report released last week, the number of homeless schoolchildren has grown exponentially in Washington in recent years, triggered by the Great Recession and lingering through the economic recovery. The report counted 2,313 Clark County students, from preschool through high school, as being homeless during the 2014-15 school year. In Vancouver Public Schools, the number of homeless students increased 10 percent over the previous year — and 112 percent since the 2009-10 school year. In Evergreen Public Schools, the one-year increase was 11 percent, while the five-year increase was 71 percent.
“I’m absolutely not surprised,” Melissa Newhouse, the homeless liaison for Vancouver schools, told The Columbian. “Not with the housing crisis that’s happening in Clark County. The biggest thing we’re seeing in Vancouver is the financial hardship of not being able to pay rent. That is what’s putting our students on the streets, in hotels, in cars or in shelters.”
There are few realities that more effectively represent the impact of the Great Recession. As Bruce Lesley, president of the First Focus Campaign for Children, told The Washington Post last fall: “One of the things we note during recessions is that young families and kids tend to be the ones who go into poverty first. … But also in the back end, kids are the last to recover.”
When children are involved, a short-term issue quickly turns into a long-term one. A study last year from North Carolina State University determined that one-quarter of homeless children are in need of mental health services. “These children have often been exposed to domestic or neighborhood violence, chronic poverty, inadequate health care, and other circumstances that place any child at risk of mental health problems,” said study author Dr. Mary Haskett, a professor of psychology. And the National Network for Youth lists additional common consequences of childhood homelessness: Substance abuse; criminal activity and victimization; unsafe sexual practices; and barriers to education and employment.
In Washington, proposed legislation (Senate Bill 6249 and House Bill 2440) would help ease the way for “host homes” that can temporarily provide stability for homeless children. Some safeguards are necessary, as state Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Aberdeen, noted: “Not every home who wants to take kids in are pure and great. Some have ulterior motives.” But the bills are worthy of consideration and debate from lawmakers.
Meanwhile, the homeless crisis that has stretched its tentacles into Clark County creates a conundrum. We can pay to fight the battle now or pay for its casualties later.