“We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.”
In 2005, the United Nations attempted a global survey to determine the number of homeless children in the world, the results of which estimated that 100 million people were homeless worldwide. Tobias Hecht‘s 1998 book, “At Home in the Street: Street Children of Northeast Brazil“ study takes readers behind the headlines and statistics into the day to day experience of family life on the street. While this book is the result of a three year study from 1992-1995 in Brazil, the tragedy of child homelessness continues today, and it is not confined to undeveloped or “third world” countries.
In a 2014 article, Newsweek reported child homelessness in the U.S., one of the world’s wealthiest countries, had reached an all-time high. A shocking 2.5 million children, or one in 30, experienced homelessness in 2013, an 8% increase over 2012. According to an article in the Guardian, the number of homeless in London increased by 75% in 2014 and by 26% nationally over the last four years. In France, 2012 saw a 50% increase in homeless people, 30,000 of which were children. In Australia, 12% of the 105,000 people reported as homeless in 2009 were children under the age of 12.
Family Life On The Streets
In some countries, such as the U.S. , child homelessness is largely the result of systemic poverty and the lack of affordable housing. As of 2014, 1.5 million families in Spain were living in shelters. In other countries, it is the result of natural disasters. For example, in 2012, severe flooding in Cameroon left 25,000 people homeless. In Haiti, 2.3 million people were left homeless by an earthquake in 2010.
Child homelessness can also be the result of political oppression and war, exemplified by the current situation of thousands of Syrian refugees. Similarly, according to a recent article in the Telegraph, political conflict in the Ukraine has left an estimated 1 million people homeless.
Dangers and Effects of Living On The Street
The dangers of life on the street are many. In addition to physical danger, life without stable housing poses social and psychological dangers as well. An undercover reporter for the BBC exposed some of those dangers in a 2014 article about his brief experiences as a homeless person on the streets of Belfast. Families for whom homeless is prolonged are exposed to much more.
One of the biggest dangers of family life on the street is vulnerability to violent crime, including theft of the family’s few remaining possessions. Child trafficking for purposes of labor, sex, or the harvesting of organs is also a perpetual possibility among this most vulnerable population. 2012 statistics from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported a 7% increase in child trafficking over three years. Of the estimated 4 million instances of human trafficking each year, 50% of the victims are children.
The physical dangers of family life on the street include a much higher potential for death from disease. The stress associated with homelessness weakens the immune system, and combined with the lack of access to proper hygiene, results in more illness. In many countries, the large number of homeless has begun to pose a national health concern, with communicable diseases like tuberculosis on the rise. Research shows that family life on the street also results in higher instances of mental health and substance abuse issues.
Some of the mental health issues caused by family life on the street include depressive disorders. 47% of homeless women in the U.S. were found to suffer from such disorders, which is twice the rate of the national average. The frequent moves associated with family life on the street also impairs the development of children’s social skills and often results in PTSD and attachment disorders. The lack of stability also disrupts education and negatively impacts academic achievement.
Family life on the street has increased in nearly every country around the world in recent years. In response to this growing crisis, many governments are developing and implementing social programs or expanding existing ones. Some of them have already achieved a remarkable degree of success. For example, Scotland, as the result of homelessness prevention services, achieved a 34% reduction in the number of homeless people from 2010 to 2014. Their success is attributed to a housing option model and changes in legislation by local authorities.
According to a 2011 survey, Finland’s strategy reduced homelessness by 50% compared to rates in the 1980’s. The success of their program has been attributed to the conversion of homeless shelters to permanent housing. The program combines elements of existing programs in the U.S. and U.K. with preventative measures such as financial guidance, debt settlement, and psycho-social case management. Through the continued exchange of ideas, perhaps one day the horror of child homelessness can be eradicated.