Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Rising rate of homelessness for mothers, children and emancipated foster youth

New face of homeless women,
Kids almost half of county's transients
Anderson, Troy. Los Angeles Daily News, Dec. 1, 2006, pb. N1.

More than 40 percent of Los Angeles County's homeless population are women and children, a situation expected to worsen in the years ahead unless immediate action is taken, officials said Thursday.

On any given night, 21,000 women and 15,000 children are estimated to be homeless in the county, with nearly 90 percent unable to find official shelter and sleeping in everything from cars to abandoned buildings, according to the survey by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles.

And the San Gabriel Valley ranks as the worst area for homeless services in the county, with only one shelter bed for every 48 homeless people, according to the survey.

"What's frightening, what's challenging, is the trend of more and more women and children falling into homelessness," said Torie Osborn, senior adviser to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

"Why? Because of the breakdown of the safety net, decrease in affordable housing, lack of accessibility to health care and continued rates of domestic violence."

The new picture of the challenges women and children face in L.A. County was released at the nonprofit's first Women Leaders Summit in downtown Los Angeles.

It comes even as Villaraigosa has stepped up efforts to combat the growing crisis by allocating $229 million to shelters and services, and the county Board of Supervisors has allocated more than $100 million.

But officials said the scope of the problem is escalating quickly.

'Trend is horrifying'
"I think the most important thing is if we were looking at 10 to 20 years ago, it probably would have been 2 to 3 percent of the homeless were women and children, but now you are looking at (40) percent plus," Osborn said. "So the trend is horrifying."

In addition to 15,000 homeless children, about 8,000 18- to 24- year-olds have emancipated from the county's foster care system and are living on the streets, Osborn said.

"They don't have any place to go," Osborn said. "They don't have any training and are dropouts of high school. And in the Los Angeles Unified School District, there is an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 homeless youth. So you have a huge issue of young people, separate and distinct from women and children."

Marge Nichols, who researched the report, said demographic and social changes have played a key role in the growing numbers.

"One of the big changes is that women have become more independent and on their own," she said. "And they are also on their own when they run into really big trouble. And they may not have the family supports that were available in earlier times."

Services lacking
Nichols said the problem is even worse in the San Gabriel Valley, which has just 216 beds for 10,500 homeless people.

"There is really only one permanent shelter, and that's in Pasadena," Nichols said. "It has, by far, the worst underserved homeless population in the county. There have been various attempts to deal with it, but this is a huge problem. And there is a huge lack of services."

Nichols said there are some day programs for the homeless in the San Gabriel Valley, and some churches in the Pomona and West Covina areas offer shelter on a rotating basis in the winter.

"The daytime programs offer some help, but it doesn't help people get back on their feet the same way being in a shelter program does where you have a variety of services available that really help to stabilize people," Nichols said.

Although women have made progress in obtaining jobs and college degrees and in opening more small businesses, the report found that the percentage of single mothers with children living in poverty increased from 37 percent in 1990 to 40 percent now. Among married couples with children, 11 percent live in poverty.

While the percentage of women in the work force has remained steady at about 56 percent since 1990, the percentage of single working mothers has surged to 72 percent.

The increase in the number of single working mothers living in poverty has been fueled by more than a million former welfare parents entering the county's labor market from 1990 to 2001, increasing competition for low-wage jobs.

Child care too pricey
While a woman's average earnings in the county is $34,941 annually -- compared with $36,581 for men -- a single mother with two children needs to make $42,936 just to pay her basic bills of food, housing, child care and transportation.

And child care has become a make-or-break issue for working women, with just half earning enough to cover the average cost of $892 a month to care for two children.

"We haven't progressed in the areas that we should have," said Elise Buik, president and chief executive officer of the United Way of Greater Los Angeles. "These are staggering statistics and the report is really to create urgency and a call to action for us to do something about it."

Osborn said community and political efforts will be key in easing the crisis but will take time to have an effect.

"This new level of political will has just started," Osborn said. "We have a 25-year epidemic. And so we're a year into this. So this is going to be like the Marshall Plan. This is a long-term, coordinated effort that requires planning, policy changes and more dollars than we have.

"If you look at New York City, they've been at this for 15 years in a concerted way. And we've only been at it for a year. So this is going to be a decade process."