As her mother sat in a homeless shelter in downtown Miami, talking about her economic struggles and loss of faith in the US political system, three-year-old Aeisha Touray blurted out what sounded like a new slogan for the Occupy Wall Street protest movement.
“How dare you!” the girl said abruptly as she nudged a toy car across a conference room table at the Chapman Partnership shelter in Miami’s tough and predominantly black Overtown neighborhood.
There was no telling what Aeisha was thinking as her 32-year-old mother, Nairkahe Touray, spoke of how she burned through her savings and wound up living in a car with five of her eight children earlier this year.
But how dare you indeed? How does anyone explain to kids like Aeisha and countless others how they wound up homeless in the world’s richest nation?
In a report issued earlier this month, the National Center on Family Homelessness, based in Needham, Massachusetts, said 1.6 million children were living on the streets of the US last year or in shelters, motels and doubled-up with other families.
That marked a 38 percent jump in child homelessness since 2007 and Ellen Bassuk, the center’s president, attributes the increase to fallout from the US recession and a surge in the number of extremely poor households headed by women.
Recent data from the US Census Bureau provided a sobering backdrop. Based on new or experimental methodology aimed at providing a fuller picture of poverty, the data showed that about 48 percent of Americans are living in poverty or on low incomes.
Under the bureau’s so-called Supplemental Poverty Measure for last year, issued last month, the poverty level for a family of four was set at income anywhere below US$24,343 a year.
“I see it every day,” said Alfredo Brown, 73, a retired army officer and deputy director of the non-profit Chapman Partnership, when asked about child homelessness.
The organization, funded largely by a 1 percent food and beverage tax on larger restaurants to bankroll homeless programs, operates two sprawling homeless shelters in Miami-Dade County.
“I see so many children and mothers that are homeless and sleeping in their car or an abandoned building, an old bus. It’s a sad situation that we live in a country that has so much and many people have so little,” Brown said.
Child homelessness is a relatively new social problem in the US, where being on the street and the stigma attached to it has long been associated with adults with alcohol or drug dependency issues.
Families accounted for less than 1 percent of the US homeless population in the middle of the 1980s, according to Bassuk, but they now comprise about a third of the homeless population. A lot of children are dependent on poverty-stricken single moms.
“There’s sort of a Third World emerging right in our backyard. You know, we talk about developing countries, but look at what’s going on here,” Bassuk said.
To put a face to the breadth and depth of the homeless problem, a team of journalists fanned out across the country last week for interviews with parents and children who are down on their luck.
From Skid Row in Los Angeles to the South Bronx in New York, a common thread of economic devastation from the recession ran throughout many of the stories these people told.
However, there also was a common thread of hope running through their compressed life stories.