Nearly one-third of San Diego's estimated 5,000 homeless people are children, a population of runaways, "throwaways" and youngsters living in shelters who suffer a debilitating array of problems ranging from depression to sexually transmitted diseases, according to participants at the county's first conference on homeless children Thursday.
Ignored until recently in this decade's debate over homelessness, children now number about 500,000 to 800,000 of the U.S. homeless population of 2 million to 3 million, research studies show. The fastest-growing part of the homeless population is families with children, which now make up 28% of the homeless population.
In San Diego, a one-day survey taken by a San Diego County Commission on Children and Youth subcommittee showed that 30% of the 678 people counted in local shelters on April 27 were children and adolescents.
"I think it's a great surprise to people that there are homeless kids," said Liz Shear, chairwoman of the subcommittee, which sponsored Thursday's conference at the new St. Vincent de Paul homeless shelter downtown. "I don't think people accept that."
Yet little research has been done about homeless children. Seeking a profile of the children and their problems, the commission, appointed last year by the County Board of Supervisors, brought together about 50 human service workers Thursday to discuss the characteristics of the homeless children and youth they see each day on San Diego's streets.
Their thoughts, to be presented to the supervisors in about a month, indicate that homelessness inflicts a wide range of physical, mental and social problems on children and will, in many cases, plague them in later life.
"Our instinct is that homeless children are children who have been abused and molested, who have come from very dysfunctional families and are trying to make a better life for themselves in the only way they know how--by living in the streets," said Juvenile Court Judge Judith McConnell, who addressed the conference.
Participants spoke of three broad categories of homeless children: runaways who have fled problems such as sexual and physical abuse at home, so-called "throwaways" who have been abandoned by their parents, and children--some of them very young--who live with their parents on the streets, in shelters or in temporary arrangements with friends.
The decreased availability of low-income housing, unemployment, federal cuts in social service programs and the breakdown of families and neighborhoods have pushed more children into the streets, Shear and others said.
"It used to be that if you didn't get along with your kid, grandma or an aunt or a buddy down the street stepped in and kind of took over," Shear said. "We either need to teach people how . . . to create resources for themselves or there are going to be more homeless kids."
Live in a Violent Culture
Youths on the street live in a violent culture where they often abuse alcohol and drugs, contract sexually transmitted diseases and become pregnant, receive little medical care or education and often resort to prostitution and petty theft to support themselves, some participants said.
"I see residents coming in who have experienced prostitution basically so they can have something to eat for the day," said Israel Wilkins, who works at The Bridge, a residential treatment center for runaways and throwaways. Other social workers said that youths sometimes exchange sexual favors for shelter.
In homeless shelters, young children often regress developmentally, adopting old habits such as bed-wetting. They become depressed or anxious, showing the effects of stress that stem from lack of security, crowding and not knowing what the future will bring. They may become aggressive or withdrawn, cling to parents or adopt exaggerated attitudes of parental bossiness, hoard food and fail to form friendships.
Their parents are often uneducated, overwhelmed by the system, guilt-ridden over their inability to provide for their children and sometimes abuse drugs and alcohol. Many families in shelters are headed by single parents, almost always women.
What worries many human service advocates is the behavior that children living in such a world will exhibit in the future. Many predicted that today's homeless children will show up on tomorrow's welfare rolls, in prisons and in mental health facilities. And they may find it difficult to do better for their children.
"If they know nothing else," said Mary Wagner-Davis, a counselor at the Downtown Mental Health Center, "what can they pass on to their children other than living on the street?"