Health

Fight to end chronic homelessness must start in childhood, report says

A man and child receive a hot meal during the annual Good Friday Easter event at the Los Angeles Mission in 2009.
A man and child receive a hot meal during the annual Good Friday Easter event at the Los Angeles Mission in 2009.
David McNew/Getty Images

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A new study of Los Angeles County's public assistance records found that children make up nearly half of those residents who’ve been homeless — a scenario that puts them at higher risk of homelessness as adults.

The head of Economic Roundtable, which issued the report "All Alone: Antecedents of Chronic Homelessness," said many of these children grow up with lasting trauma.

“They’ve had high levels of disorganization and displacement,” said the nonprofit’s president Daniel Flaming.  “They’ve been in shelters. They’ve couch-surfed with strangers.”

Meanwhile, the stress of not having a home reduces the parents’ ability to care for their children, creating a life of "uncertainty and fragility." Combined with mental illness or disability, this can set someone on a path to chronic homelessness as an adult, Flaming said.

The group set out to identify ways to keep people from falling into homelessness and got special permission from the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to look at the public assistance records of 942,000 residents who had experienced homelessness between 2002 and 2010.

Researchers looked at all age groups but found child homelessness an especially acute problem. On any given month, 100,000 county children were homeless.  It's also a major issue statewide: California was recently ranked 48th in the country for the extent of its child homelessness by the National Center on Family Homelessness.

The group is recommending that local health and social service agencies be more rigorous about helping families when certain “tripwire” scenarios come up such as domestic violence, long-term unemployment for parents and a child’s chronic absenteeism from school.

The report also pushed for early detection of disabilities in children, a common issue for many homeless people. A review of the public assistance records indicates that disabilities are under-reported among county children. The rate of disability among these children was only a tenth of the 3 percent rate reported by the Census Bureau.

Homeless service providers agreed with the need to commit more resources to preventing homelessness. John Maceri, executive director of Santa Monica's Ocean Park Community Center, said that the downspiral into homelessness can be very rapid, and rebounding is difficult. The expensive Los Angeles housing market makes the transition that much harder, he said.

"It can be difficult to get people on their feet," Maceri said. "Real estate rents continue to rise and there's a small vacancy rate."   

The report is underwritten by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which is focused on ending chronic homelessness.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled John Maceri's name. We regret the error.