Homelessness is a very real problem in the United States. It is estimated that over 550,000 people are experiencing homelessness at any given time (National Alliance to End Homelessness), and this number does not even include those staying with family members or friends, who may not consider themselves homeless, but have no place else to go. Between 2016 and 2017 the largest increase in homelessness was among unaccompanied children and young adults. Currently, among the fastest growing homeless population are families with children (National Coalition for the Homeless), and even more likely to fall into housing insecurity are single parent households.
In the United States, 34% of children live in single parent households (The Data Center Kids Count). According to the Census Bureau, over 83% of single parent households are headed by a single mother. This means that single mothers and their children are more likely to experience homelessness than other types of families.
Single mothers have a higher risk of housing insecurity for a variety of reasons. The housing affordability crisis plays a big role. It is often difficult for a low income single adult to find housing suitable for their family that will not rent burden them. A family is considered rent burdened if they pay more than 30% of their income towards housing. Families are considered severely rent burdened if they pay more than 50% of their income towards housing. Many low income families across Louisiana today pay up to 80% of their income to housing expenses. In 2009, more than half of renter-occupied households with children were rent burdened. Nearly 80% of low income families (those making less than 200% the poverty threshold) with children are rent burdened (National Center for Children in Poverty).
Single woman headed households are also likely to experience family status discrimination. Family status discrimination occurs when the rental or sale of a housing unit is either prohibited or discouraged because of the number of children in the household, age or gender of the children, or a pregnancy (HUD). Sometimes, landlords will turn down potential tenants due to their family size or having teenagers in the household. This can prevent single parents from accessing smaller, more affordable units. Family status is a protected class under the Fair Housing Act, if you feel you have experienced this type of discrimination, please call LaFHAC at 504-596-2100.
Employment and childcare issues contribute to the risk of housing instability as well. Mothers of school age children may struggle to find a job that is during school hours, allowing them to be home with their children after school. Often times, one job isn’t enough to support at family as wages have remained low while the cost of living has increased over the past couple of decades. For mothers of younger kids, it can be even more difficult. Childcare is expensive and can sometimes cost even more than rent. Childcare vouchers, Headstart, and scholarship spots at child development facilities can help to mitigate this expense, but the system is difficult to navigate. Women are often found ineligible for a childcare voucher if they have yet to have landed a job or started school, but there is waiting period for approval after applying, meaning they may have to go over a month without the assistance while working or in school. If they do not have a way to maintain that, they could lose a job or need to withdraw from school before the voucher is ever approved. Many childcare programs do not accept childcare assistance as a form of payment and there is often a waitlist for programs that do. Just the logistics of getting children into care can be near impossible for some families, and this is before even considering the type or quality of care they have access to.
Domestic violence is a common factor amongst women and children experiencing homelessness. Mothers are sometimes forced to choose between violence towards them or their children in the home or homelessness. A study of over 750 homeless parents, the vast majority of whom were mothers, across 10 cities, revealed that 22% of them had fled their last residence due to domestic violence (The National Coalition for the Homeless). A 2003 Minnesota study revealed that 44% of homeless woman had previously stayed in an abusive relationship because they had nowhere else to go (Domestic Violence and Homelessness, ACLU). Though often illegal, some landlords evict victims of domestic violence if it occurs on the property they are renting. An investigation by a New York fair housing Organization revealed that 28% of housing providers would either refuse to rent to or never follow up with domestic violence survivors (Domestic Violence and Homelessness, ACLU). It is estimated that over half of all homeless children and women have experienced abuse.
The other major contributing factors to risk of homeless are also experienced by single mothers and their children. Mental illness, substance use disorders, generational poverty, race, and ethnicity all play a major role. A 2004 survey found that nearly half of those experiencing homelessness are Black and 13% were Hispanic (National Coalition for the Homeless). Additionally, historic policy inequity has led to 64% of Black children and 42% of Latinx children being raised in household with a single parent compared to just 24% of white children (Data Center Kids Count). These circumstances and inequities compound to increase the risk of homelessness for single woman headed households of color.
Navigating housing insecurity as a mother can be a difficult and traumatic experience. Bouncing around to friends and neighbors and “doubling up” can leave children exposed to further harm. Living on the street or in spaces not intended for human habitation can cause long term mental health effects and increase the risk or physical violence, weather related trauma, and theft of the few belongs families may have (Childhood Homelessness Could Have Long Term Consequences).
Shelters can also be unsafe and unstable (Homeless Children and Youth: Causes and Consequences, ). With little to no privacy and close living quarters for families already in dire situations, theft and domestic disputes can occur. Shelter curfews make it difficult for parents to obtain jobs at certain hours of the day for risk of losing their housing. Many private shelters have an expiration date on housing for the families that they serve. The stress of trying to find a place to go next can plight families even if they do have safe place to stay temporarily.
Mothers of boys may face even more hardship in the shelter system as they grow up. Many women and children’s shelters have an age limit on the boys who can stay there. For some mothers that means having to make decisions to separate themselves for them their sons until they find permanent housing or not having access to certain shelters at all (For Many Families, a Tough Choice, Separation or a Shelter Bed).
Lacking a permanent address has a huge effect on a family. It is nearly impossible to gain employment in the formal economy without an address to use. Also, as public schools are typically assigned based on where you live, children can be forced to change schools multiple times each year as they move or change shelters, destabilizing their access to education. “An estimated 39 percent of sheltered homeless children missed more than one week of school in the past three months and changed school from two to five times in the last 12 months,” according to the National Center for Children in Poverty (Homeless Children and Youth: Causes and Consequences).
As we reach the one year mark of the social upheaval and economic downtown caused by the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, and recognize Women’s History Month, it is time to start a meaningful conversation about how we house and support single mothers and their children living in poverty. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated financial hardships, unemployment, the lack of childcare access, education access, domestic violence, housing instability, eviction, physical health conditions, and mental health conditions with a disparate impact on single mothers, especially single mothers of color. Housing insecurity and homelessness should not be the final destinations for domestic violence survivors and low income families in a country where the number of empty housing units surpasses the number individuals experiencing homelessness.