Today the Congressional Caucus on Homelessness and Senator Patty Murray held a briefing on Homelessness in America: Experiences & Solutions in the 113th Congress. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson and staffers from the offices of Senator Patty Murray and Rep. Alcee Hastings kicked off the event with remarks stating the Congresspersons’ commitment to spreading awareness of homelessness among current Congressional members. The hearing room in the new Capitol Visitors Center was filled to capacity with interested Congressional staffers and advocates!
Carmela DeCandia, Director of the National Center on Family Homelessness, started off the speakers by giving statistics on family and child homelessness. Those of us who work in homeless advocacy are familiar with this numbers, but they are still quite startling: around 1.6 million children will experience homelessness this year – for the first year ever the Department of Education found more than a million students did not have stable housing! The impact that this lack of stable housing has on children is also quite startling – 50% of children who experience homelessness will also experience depression or anxiety, and will have below average test scores.
The next speaker to share his testimony was Devin Johnson, a High School student from Prince George’s County in Maryland. Devin related his experience with homelessness, which started when both of his parents were laid off from jobs at a restaurant chain. Over the years, Devin lived with family members, in shelters and outdoors in tents, moving constantly with his family and having to change schools often. He related many of the challenges homeless families and children often face, losing all belongings, not getting along with family, and having difficulty dealing with school. Devin’s testimony was critical in showing the audience the face of the human struggle of homelessness, but also how the human spirit can persevere through obstacles. As he put it, “It feels so good to say you finally made it after it’s been a hard long road…anything is possible.”
Also providing some personal testimony, but from an advocate’s perspective, was Brian Carome, the Executive Director of Street Sense, Washington, DC’s Street Newspaper. Mr. Carome shared his deep personal outrage that homelessness has become an accepted as a part of our daily existence. Many of us who were born in the 1970’s or later have never known a time without homelessness. But this current epoch of homelessness was not always the norm, federal housing and welfare programs did at one time succeed in creating a stable home environment for most Americans. Brian stated that homelessness not only wreaks havoc on the American Family, but that it also greatly decreases a person’s life expectancy. He became choked up when remembering a friend who died while homeless, at the age of 37, a death that could have been prevented with greater access to housing and healthcare.
Maria Foscarinis of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty rounded out the panel of speakers by bringing the previous testimony to bear on current policy issues. She declared, “homelessness is not a disease…we know how to end it!” Maria described how the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act provides educational supports for children and families experiencing homelessness, but not all local programs have the resources to meet needs. She applauded the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-housing program from the Recovery Act of 2009 as housing over one million families, though this short term program is now over. Maria stressed that there is too little funding for the solutions that are working across the country, and that the cost of doing nothing far outweighs the cost of making lasting housing solutions.
At the beginning of the briefing, Sarah Bolton, Senior Policy and Budget Advisor to Senator Patty Murray pointed out that the elephant in the room was sequestration, and its impact on Federal programs. Sequestration has already caused decreased funding for housing vouchers, and as it was put in the briefing, the cutting of funding for housing vouchers is one of the most effectively ways to drastically increase family homelessness. All of the testimony given at the briefing sends a strong message to Congress: start doing more to help house American families!