Revealing The Lives Of Homeless Mothers And Their Children

Supermajority Education Fund

November 25, 2019

A recent piece published by the New York Times followed a day in the life of two young homeless school children — 8-year-old Darnell and 10-year-old Sandivel — and their mothers, Sherine and Maria. The report’s depiction of Sherine and Maria’s experiences is, in many ways, representative of the experiences of homeless mothers across the country, as well as New York City specifically, where there are 114,085 homeless students. 

Like many homeless mothers, Sherine is employed; She told the Times she recently started working as a home health aide. The Coalition for the Homeless reports that about a third of families in New York City shelters are made up of at least one working adult. Maria is unemployed but actively looking for employment. She needs a job with regular daytime hours that would allow her to take care of her children. The instability of homelessness also makes it difficult to maintain employment, according to Jacquelyn Simone, a policy analyst with the Coalition for the Homeless. In addition to often needing dependable and affordable childcare, the lack of a permanent address often has homeless job seekers fearful that they will be ‘outed’ as being homeless. “A lot of people are very concerned about putting a shelter address on a resume. They try to hide that fact.” 

Another major factor that leads many women and children to homelessness is the threat or presence of domestic violence, which Maria experienced — she fled her former home because it was abusive. In an October blog post, the Coalition for the Homeless stated that domestic violence is the leading cause of homelessness for women.

“The most important thing we can do to support families fleeing violence is to make sure they do not languish in shelters for long periods of time, but rather are helped to move into stable permanent housing as soon as possible,” Coalition for the Homeless Policy Director Giselle Routhier said in a statement for Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Extended stays in shelters are disruptive to family life in other ways, too. Because families are also often placed in shelters that are far from the communities they know, Simone added, they face isolation and long commutes to work and school. 

Some short-term solutions to these problems are available to homeless mothers. Simone notes that some shelters provide childcare to families living there, and some organizations, like the Coalition for the Homeless, offer a mail program that allows registered users to list the Coalition’s offices as a permanent address. But the most impactful changes will come only with long-term, systemic solutions related to affordable childcare and employment. “We need to treat homelessness like the crisis it is,” said Simone. “If people are outraged, they need to let local officials know.”