By Tess Riski, Project Assistant, Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness
Editor’s Note: Seattle University Journalism and Teaching for Humanities rising senior Tess Riski recently joined our project team. This is her first post for our project. Read more about her here.
All day this past Wednesday, June 28, a host of Seattle media outlets participated in #SeaHomeless and concentrated their reporting on a group of people often kept in the shadows of mainstream news coverage: those experiencing homelessness.
I just started my position as Project Assistant at the Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness, and this last week has been an intense learning process for me. I come to the project with somewhat of a background in reporting on homelessness, but there is so much more to understand. It seems as though every time I learn something new about family homelessness, a swarm of additional questions buzzes around my head.
As stories of those experiencing homelessness have continued to increase, so has the homeless population in Seattle and King County over the last several years. This year’s Count Us In results revealed almost 12,000 people who were homeless – 5,485 of whom were living in tents, vehicles and on the streets in the county.
I was surprised to learn that 2,833 – or about 25 percent – of those counted were families with children. Family homelessness has different causes than other types of homelessness, and families experiencing it face unique challenges and added hurdles. The impact of homelessness on families is often magnified for a number of reasons, such as the looming threat of being torn apart and the instability’s negative impacts on the education of children.
While I think there is an infinite amount of information I can learn about its causes, nuances and solutions, these are my seven major takeaways about family and young people homelessness from Wednesday’s aggregate reporting.
Takeaway 1. Childcare costs remain a huge barrier for families experiencing homelessness.
Rising childcare costs are unbearable enough for those who work full-time in Seattle. But for someone experiencing homelessness who is working or actively searching for a job, childcare is nearly impossible to afford. This challenge, among a multitude of others for families experiencing homelessness, was illustrated in an article posted yesterday on seattlepi.com called “No place to call home: Unique struggles faced by homeless kids.”
The story focused on the lives of a Seattle couple, Ebrahim and Madina Jafari, who fled persecution in their native countries and recently immigrated from a refugee camp in East Africa. For this couple, looking after their newborn child and their two-year-old and trying to find housing in an expensive market has made it extremely difficult to make career strides. And once children experiencing homelessness are old enough to attend school, another unique set of problems arises.
Takeaway 2. Housing instability for children can lead to lifelong mental and physical disorders.
Family homelessness often means significant turbulence. As the family moves between homes and shelters, the children switch schools or adopt lengthier and lengthier commutes. The instability also means children can have a harder time focusing in school and completing homework outside of school.
The stress of housing instability for children ages Pre-K to grade five has been shown to trigger toxic stress. While the child may be only experiencing homelessness temporarily, this instability can still lead to lifelong disorders on their physical and mental health.
Takeaway 3. Similarly, children experiencing homelessness are half as likely to graduate from high school.
The same article posted by seattlepi.com also pointed out that children experiencing homelessness are half as likely to graduate from high school as housed children. I was aware that teens experiencing homelessness were less likely to earn a high school diploma, but the fact that their odds are halved shocked me. Education is a powerful tool, and a lack of diploma can perpetuate the vicious cycle of homelessness by reducing further opportunities for young people.
Takeaway 4. A disproportionate amount of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ.
We are on the heels of last weekend’s PrideFest, an important event that tends to focus on the positive strides the LGBTQ community has made in the last several decades. But it is also important to remember during this time of celebration that a disproportionate amount of young people experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ.
According to a moving article posted Wednesday by KCTS-TV and Spark Public Media called “Part-Time Student, Full-Time Homeless,” 29 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, compared to 7 percent of the general population.
While I was aware that vulnerable populations are more likely to be impacted by homelessness, I still found the statistics from the article sobering: 46 percent of LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness ran away from home because of family rejection of their sexuality or sexual identity, 43 percent were forced out by parents for those same reasons, and 32 percent were experiencing physical, emotional or sexual abuse at home.
Takeaway 5. Images of tents and garbage may be evocative, but they do not accurately represent homelessness, particularly family homelessness.
Throughout the day, a common image used to represent those experiencing homelessness in Seattle was this one and others similar to it:
The image is powerful and easily communicates the concept of “homelessness” to the viewer. But images like this often feed negative stereotypes about those experiencing homelessness and their impact on Seattle. Further, they are not representative of families experiencing homelessness, 97 percent of whom were living in some sort of shelter during 2017’s Count Us In.
Other images that are more representative of homelessness are those that capture the emotion and character of those affected by it, rather than the conditions in which those individuals are living. (This is similar to using the phrase “people experiencing homelessness” rather than “the homeless.”) Small tools like these focus on the people behind the issue rather than their label. An image successful at representing that emotion is this one, posted on #SeaHomeless day by our very own Seattle U Project on Family Homelessness:
Takeaway 6. While public opinion regarding family homelessness seems to have become more understanding over the years, comments on articles show there is more work to be done.
I was amazed and humbled at the amount of work media and advocacy groups poured into #SeaHomeless yesterday, but I broke one of the cardinal rules taught in my journalism experience: I read the comments sections. I understand that there are plenty of Internet trolls out there contributing negative comments to posts, but there still seemed to be a large population of people – or large enough for me to take notice – who were extremely quick to point the finger at those experiencing homelessness.
While I’m surrounded by advocacy groups and reporters determined to end family homelessness, it is easy for me to forget that the rest of the public isn’t necessarily on the same page. Reading negative comments pertaining to homelessness is a reminder that there is still much more to be done in terms of public opinion, which brings me to my final point.
Takeaway 7. The work doesn’t stop here for journalists, advocates, educators and more.
Yesterday’s #SeaHomeless project did an incredible job at shining a light on homelessness in Seattle, but the work is not done. Reporting on, advocating for and teaching about homelessness is a critical tool needed to understand the causes and develop solutions. It is crucial for media outlets to continue producing stories on the topic and keep the conversation about homelessness alive long after June 28 has passed.
What I’ve learned in my short time so far at the Project on Family Homelessness is that family homelessness can hit quickly and without warning: a simple job loss, piling healthcare bills, domestic violence and many other factors can leave a family unhoused in a matter of days. And it is my belief that through sharing stories about how a family fell into homelessness, we can increase public understanding and, most importantly, public empathy. It is through sharing stories about homelessness that those who are fortunate enough not to experience it can realize they aren’t much different from those who are.
What You Can Do
- Look into all the excellent media coverage from June 28, plus content by our partners, using the hashtag #SeaHomeless.
- You can also check out a summary of all the media coverage, compiled by the primary media sponsor, Crosscut, where I interned in spring quarter.
- Read this #SeaHomeless ParentMap article about how to talk to your kids about homelessness; it features an interview with our former colleague Lisa Gustaveson and mentions our project.