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Gimme Shelter

April 7, 2016

Nick Kristof’s NYTimes column today provides a clear-eyed description of the effects of homelessness on children and underscores the minuscule amount of money needed to solve the problem. Using the story of Khadijah Williams, a recent Harvard grad and former homeless child, as an example, Kristof writes:

Khadijah bounced from home to home, shelter to shelter, from the time she was 6. “I can’t count how many times I’ve been forced to move,” she recalls.

“Though school was my salvation, my test scores suffered as a result of missing so much school and having no place to study,” she adds. “I stopped trying to make friends because I was so tired of crying about losing friends.”

But Khadijah’s trajectory is exceptional. The United States has 64,000 families who are homeless, including 123,000 children, and many will be permanently harmed by the experience. We have growing evidence that traumas like homelessness can flood a child’s brain with a stress hormone, cortisol, and impair brain development.

I emphasize the phrase “like homelessness” because Kristof goes on to describe an even more insidious problem children raised in poverty face: repeated evictions. Kristof quotes Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond who was raised under these circumstances:

“Every year in this country, people are evicted from their homes not by the tens of thousands or even the hundreds of thousands but by the millions,” Desmond notes. About one-fourth of all moves by Milwaukee’s poorest renters were involuntary, and such moves disrupt children’s education, make it harder to hold onto jobs and damage the fabric of entire neighborhoods.

“Without stable shelter, everything else falls apart,” Desmond says.

I know from my own middle class experience as a child and a parent that voluntarily moving from one location to another to seek a better job can be disruptive to children. It is difficult to imagine what the impact would be when a child is uncertain where they will sleep night-to-night and whether they will find their possessions where they left them when they headed off for school. I am certain of this: completing one’s homework might be a lower priority under those circumstances, and for an older child trying out for athletics or the school play would be out of the question.

It is also difficult to imagine how “reform” solutions like “choice” will help a family that is uncertain where they will reside the next night if they are homeless or where they will reside in the next month if they are behind in their rent. Somehow spending hours to determine which school is best for their child takes a back seat to spending hours to find a job or spending hours to find an apartment they can afford.

The bottom line on improving public education is that we cannot expect children who lack the basic needs— food clothing and shelter— to be able to give 100% of their time and energy to school or, worse yet, to experience the sheer joy of learning. Not very child is given the opportunity to be raised in a household where the basic needs are taken for granted. Those who want to use test scores to measure student performance should keep that in mind when they excoriate teachers for failing to help students succeed.


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