Every holiday season we become keenly aware of those among us who don’t have the basic necessities of life – a roof over their heads or food on the table. Many in our community respond generously, especially to the children who share the experiences of hunger and homelessness with their parents. At Cuidando Los Niños, we serve these children and their families daily and are very grateful for this outpouring of generosity.
However, there are so many more homeless children and families who struggle without help. A recent report by the National Center on Family Homelessness ranks New Mexico 45th among the 50 states in terms of prevalence and risk factors for child homelessness, including low family income levels, lack of affordable housing and lack of access to health insurance. More than 16,000 New Mexican children experienced homelessness last year, double the number from just four years ago. More than 40 percent of children who are homeless are under age 6. Families with children are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population, now accounting for one-third of all homeless people.
Every day at Cuidando Los Niños we are reminded that homelessness is a stressful, traumatic and potentially dangerous experience, especially for young children. By age 12, eight in 10 homeless children have witnessed at least one violent event. Homeless children are four times more likely to have health problems, twice as likely to go hungry, and nearly half have problems with anxiety, depression and withdrawal. Fewer than 25 percent of homeless children graduate from high school.
Homelessness impacts the well-being of our entire community. We all pick up the cost for emergency shelters, emergency health care, mental health care and foster care. We cannot afford to lose a generation of well-educated, healthy, productive workers, parents, and community members. The images of young children and youths living on the streets challenge our basic principles. This is just not supposed to happen in this country.
We know how to help children and families work their way out of homelessness. We do this every day at Cuidando Los Niños. Our children receive high-quality early childhood development education, nutrition, health and behavioral health care. Our parents work with staff to design and get started on a pathway back to safety and stability. We don’t do this alone, of course. We depend on our network of community partners, service-providers, donors and concerned neighbors.
Based on our firm belief that we can and must end child and family homelessness, Cuidando Los Niños, the N.M. Coalition to End Homelessness, and other partners across the state have initiated a statewide campaign to ensure A Home for Every Child in New Mexico. There is a role for all of us to build community webs of support that will nurture the next generation and build our “common wealth.” Together we can end child and family homelessness.
Angela Merkert is the executive director of Cuidando Los Niños and A Home for Every Child, and Wendy Wintermute is the advocacy program director.