Groups call for long-term efforts to stabilize Utah’s unsheltered families during pandemic

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Rebecca Blackburn watches another mother's child at a phase one housing unit in Midvale where multiple single mothers share a communal kitchen as part of a program known as LifeStart. The a multi-faceted program for single homeless mothers, which includes day-care facilities and lodgings helps single parents get back on their feet.

It’s been a “challenging year” for homeless children in Utah, notes a series of reports released this week by the Crossroads Urban Center and the Coalition of Religious Communities.

Fear of contracting the virus has made some families unwilling to seek shelter, leading them to stay in potentially unsafe conditions for longer than they otherwise would. The pandemic has also disrupted two school years, which has particularly affected homeless students who don’t have consistent internet access.

“There are a lot of reasons to be concerned about homeless children and homeless families” right now, said Bill Tibbitts, associate director of the Crossroads Urban Center, during a Facebook Live briefing on one of the child homelessness reports this week.

But while the pandemic has had wide reaching effects on people experiencing homelessness across the state, the primary focus of the reports is not on the COVID-19 response. Instead, the groups are calling on state and local leaders to address the long-term problems that children experiencing homelessness face and that will persist far beyond the virus — such as a lack of supportive housing for families and the need for more school resources for homeless students.

“The need to act on those longer-term problems is more pressing now that we see the kids who are falling behind are at risk of just getting lost in long-term ways,” Tibbitts said.

The statewide report on child homelessness, released Friday, shows that there were just over 14,000 people from families with children who received homeless services in Utah during the three-year period from 2017-2019. And 4,254 of those were children 6 or younger, according to data obtained from the Utah Homelessness Dashboard.

That’s not altogether surprising, Tibbitts said, since national research shows that the most common time for a person in the United States to be homeless is during the first year of life.

Still, he said, “we should all be very concerned that so many very young children are becoming homeless in Utah.”

Many of the needs are centered in Salt Lake County, where 9,082 people in families with children received homeless services during the three-year period from 2017-2019. Nearly 2,800 of those who received services during that time frame were 6 or younger.

Several of those homeless families experienced repeated or extended stints of homelessness, the county-specific report notes. Around 485 people in families with children were homeless for six months or longer from 2017-2019, and 105 of those were children aged 6 or younger.

The numbers were less dramatic in Weber County, which has seen spikes in the number of people experiencing homelessness in recent years, but they still reveal that there are hundreds of families in need of services.

Nearly 1,570 people in families with children received homeless services during the 2017-2019 time frame, and 461 of them were 6 years old or younger. More than 50 people in families with children who were homeless in 2019 had been homeless four or more times during the past three years, the Weber County-specific report states.

Childhood trauma

The research on child homelessness makes pretty clear that being unsheltered is a traumatic event that takes children time to recover from, Tibbitts said. And those challenges are often exacerbated for children who experience long-term or repeated instances of homelessness.

“Kids are resilient. They can recover from trauma. But you can’t recover from trauma that’s ongoing or keeps repeating every time you start to feel better,” he said.

Becoming homeless is often the product of a series of traumatic events in the first place, he notes. And being homeless can also expose children to domestic violence or other forms of trauma.

During a Facebook Live briefing on the Weber County-specific report, Rev. Kim James from the First United Methodist Church in Marriott-Slaterville noted that she adopted two siblings from Colombia in 2005. At the ages of 6 and 8, the children had already suffered from poverty, hunger, abuse, domestic violence and homelessness, she said.

Along with community support, she and her husband “did everything in our power to try to heal the trauma our children had suffered,” James said. But “the sad reality became apparent to us that early life homelessness wires a child’s brain and shapes their perception of reality in negative ways that are very hard to change later on.”

Today, James said her daughter is struggling to get her GED diploma so she can get a better paying job and she avoids homelessness “only because we parents assist her financially each month.” Her son, on the other hand, “is barely satisfying his probation requirements enough to stay out of jail.”

“We all like to hear and retell the success stories of those exceptional persons who defied the odds and rose up to a better life,” James said, but that’s not always what happens.

“The seeming inability of my children to rise above the trauma of their formative years is proof to me that as a society we dare not let our little children suffer these traumas,” she said.

In addition to experiencing trauma, children who are homeless often fall behind in school. By some measures, students who land on the streets are up to nine times more likely to be held back for at least one grade, the report notes.

The pandemic’s disruption of two school years, therefore “increases the chances children who are homeless this year will not graduate from high school,” the report contends.

“A lot of kids are doing remote learning all the time or part of the time,” Tibbitts noted. “And this is a particular hardship for kids who are living in a shelter where they don’t necessarily have the best internet access or a quiet space where they can go and be with a tablet, if they are lucky enough to have a tablet.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Kids read books at the KidStart Daycare and Child Development Center in Midvale. The Family Support Center operates a multifaceted program for single homeless mothers, which includes day care facilities and lodgings to help them get back on their feet.

‘Choose the children'

To stabilize people experiencing child homelessness, the reports provide a number of recommendations to policymakers — and the first among them is to create additional units of supportive housing for families with extended or repeated experiences of homelessness.

The state-specific report recommends creating 200 units statewide, while the Salt Lake County report calls on leaders there to produce 150 new units and the Weber County one calls for 30.

Supportive housing units are often created with older, childless adults in mind and may not work for people with young children. But the reports argue that “parents and children with extensive histories of homelessness need a stable, child-centered, place to recover from the trauma they have endured.” The groups also call for age-appropriate physical and mental health services, child care services and a strong connection to local schools.

Also needed is more affordable housing, the reports note, and they call on both Weber and Salt Lake counties to create a Housing Affordability Commission that’s specifically charged with identifying housing needed to reduce child homelessness.

In Salt Lake County, the report says the commission’s first task “should be identifying unused properties owned by local government entities that can be used to spur the creation of targeted affordable housing.”

The reports call, too, for officials to capitalize on full Medicaid expansion by connecting all parents and children who become homeless with health care; to reduce the impact of COVID-19 by continuing pandemic rental assistance programs; and to ensure schools identify and assist children who have fallen behind in school because of homelessness.

Father Elias Koucos with the Greek Orthodox Church said during the briefing on the state report Friday that there’s a role for individuals to play, as well.

He called on Utahns to volunteer and donate to shelters and programs that reach out to people experiencing homelessness, to call and write to government leaders calling for increased funding for homelessness and to select representatives that align with the “moral and ethical” responsibility to provide for families.

“As the 2020 report states, let our focus be on ways homeless services in Utah can better stabilize homeless families with children and let our efforts begin today to mitigate these problems in future years,” he concluded. “Let’s choose them. Let’s choose the children.”

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Father Elias Koucos and Father Justin Havens stand on the banks of the creek in Sugar House Park during "Blessing of the Waters" in Salt Lake City, Utah, Jan. 6, 2012. Koucos said the community need to see to the needs of children and families who are homeless or at risk of losing housing.