Summer vacation is wrapping up; kids everywhere are gearing up for the return to school. Stores are filled with school supplies; back-to-school advertising fills our TVs, radio and mailboxes. Many families are hustling from store to store getting supplies, backpacks, clothes and haircuts. As children, while we hated to see summer end, we fondly remember the yearly ritual and the excitement and anticipation of getting all those new things.
Unfortunately, not all families and children in Fairfax County experience the new school year this way. It may be hard to imagine that in a county as wealthy as Fairfax there are hundreds of children that do not have a home to call their own. In 2013, almost 700 children resided in emergency homeless shelters at some point during the year. This uncertain existence is a constant source of trauma for children.
While Fairfax County does have strong programs and initiatives provided by its local government, its public school system and community non-profits to support these children, they are not enough. Permanent housing is a critical and basic need of everyone and research has consistently shown that unless children’s most basic needs are met in a safe and consistent manner, their social, emotional, physical and cognitive development is often delayed.
Believe it or not, in a county where the median household income is in excess of $100,000, housing costs are prohibitive for many. There is often a misconception about homeless families and it is not uncommon to hear, “they need to work like the rest of us.”
The truth is they do. The vast majority of families in homeless shelters are employed and they are doing everything they can to move themselves to self-sufficiency and support their families. The problem is not with their motivation to support themselves. The challenge is that there is not housing available to them that they can afford.
While the median household income may be in the six figures, for many it is much lower. Using the accepted formula of spending one third of gross income on housing, a rent of $1,200/month requires an approximate annual income of $44,000. That equates to about $21 an hour. People who work in the service industry and the stores and businesses we rely on each and every day earn much less than that.
As stated in the Ten Year Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness adopted by our community in 2008, we need to have affordable housing that is accessible to all its hardworking members. While it is also imperative that we as a community continue to ensure that children have school supplies, access to good nutrition at school, clothing etc., without a home to call their own, they will continue to live in a perpetual state of fear and stress. If we genuinely want them to succeed, that is too heavy a load for the youngest and most vulnerable in our community.
If you would like to be a part of helping these families, please contact one of our non-profit partners working so hard to find and provide housing for them or the Fairfax County Public Schools Homeless Liaison Office working diligently to make sure these children receive the services they are entitled to and need. Visit http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/homeless/partnerupdate/community-partners.htm and http://www.fcps.edu/dss/ips/homelessinfo/HomelessBrochure.pdf for more.
Dean Klein is director of the Fairfax County Office to Prevent and End Homelessness.