An interesting fact about family homelessness: before the early-1980s, it did not exist in America, at least not as an endemic, multi-generational problem afflicting millions of poverty-stricken adults and kids. Back then, the typical homeless family was a middle-aged woman with teenagers who wound up in a shelter following some sort of catastrophic bad luck like a house fire. They stayed a short time before they got back on their feet.
In the 1980s, family homelessness did not so much begin to grow as it exploded, leaving poverty advocates and city officials stunned as young parents with small children overwhelmed the shelter system and spilled into the streets. In New York City, the rate of homeless people with underage kids went up by 500 percent between 1981 and 1995. Nationally, kids and families made up less than 1 percent of the homeless population in the early 1980s, according to advocate and researcher Dr. Ellen Bassuk . HUD estimates put the number at 35 percent of people sleeping in shelters in 2010.
“All of a sudden, around the early 1980s we started to see tons of families who were there because of poverty,” Ralph da Costa-Núñez , who worked in Mayor Ed Koch’s administration and is now CEO of the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, tells AlterNet.
The reasons behind the jump in family homelessness are not complex, Núñez says. “It was the gutting of the safety net. Reagan cut every social program that helped the poor. Then there’s inflation so their aid checks are shrinking. Where are they going? Into the streets, into the shelters.”
The administration was especially keen to cut low-income housing programs. Peter Dreier writes that Reagan created a housing task force, ” dominated by politically connected developers, landlords and bankers.” They and the president were in agreement that the market was the best way to address housing for the poor, and instituted cuts in government spending that yielded almost instant results. In 1970, Dreier writes, there were more low-income housing units than families who needed them, but “by 1985 the number of low-cost units had fallen to 5.6 million, and the number of low-income renter households had grown to 8.9 million, a disparity of 3.3 million units.”