MIAMI–When it’s time for bed, 10-year-old Miguel Abreu retrieves a deflated air mattress wedged between a bookcase and the wall in his aunt’s tiny apartment in Florida City, south of Miami. He quietly unfolds it in the middle of the dining/living room and hooks up an electric pump.
While the pump is inflating the bed, he gets sheets and pillows out of a stack of plastic bins in the dining room where his family keeps their possessions. He hands his parents pillows and bedding so they can prepare beds in two recliners while he makes up the air mattress he will share with his sister Jennifer, age 13. His younger sister, Maribel, 6, will share a bed with her aunt.
Like thousands of children nationwide, who have no guarantee of where they will sleep on any given night, the Abreu children are homeless.
1.6 Million Homeless Children
According to America’s Youngest Outcasts, a report by the National Center on Family Homelessness, 1.6 million children in the United States were homeless at some point in 2010, the most recent statistics available.
During the recession, from 2007 to 2010, child homelessness spiked 38 percent nationwide.
According to the 2011 Council on Homelessness report, Florida’s public school districts identified over 49,000 Florida school-age children as homeless during the 2009-2010 school year.
In Miami-Dade County alone, school officials identified and assisted nearly 4,000 homeless children last year.
This school year, officials have already helped 4,920 in only the first four months. More than 2,300 of those students were living in shelters, with another 2,400 doubled up in apartments with friends or relatives. A handful lived in cars and parks.
Miami-Dade County has a policy of never letting a child sleep on the streets and pays for shelter space for families, and for hotel rooms when the shelters are full. Last year, Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust paid the hotel bill of three or four families a month, according to Trust Chairman Ron Book. This year, there are often as many as 60 families in hotel rooms.
Book blames the ongoing grind of the sluggish economy, but also sees other factors for the sudden and dramatic rise in the number of local families needing assistance. Federal “rapid re-housing” funds designed to quickly put families back in homes dried up early in 2011.
In addition, Florida’s foreclosure crisis has unfolded differently from other areas of the country. That’s because, in Florida, it can take up to two years to foreclose on a homeowner in default.
“It takes time to evict people. It takes time to foreclose. Our foreclosure process has dragged on longer than in other parts of the country. So many people stayed in the status quo for a while,” Book said. “That’s now catching up with us.”
Many Roads to Homelessness
Every family’s road to homelessness is different. For many, the simple lack of jobs is at the heart of it. A family that was getting by, with parents able to find work during boom times, can be easily pushed to or over the edge of poverty when unemployment spikes and then remains stubbornly high for months on end.
The Abreus moved to South Florida at the beginning of the school year. Yasmir, 41, and his wife Marleny, 44, both worked as housekeepers in Las Vegas casinos when a friend urged them to leave their jobs and come with him to Miami to start a business.
Their friend promised better jobs, a better apartment, even a house. For a while, the family stayed at a modest hotel in Miami Beach. Everything seemed to be going well.
The kids started school and made new friends quickly. They adjusted well and made good grades. The two younger children even earned student-of-the-month awards in October.
But it all came crashing down. The friend disappeared, according to the Abreus, taking money he had borrowed from Yasmir’s brother-in-law, who is now facing foreclosure.
Yasmir stopped paying the loan on his van first, saving the money for the hotel. The van was repossessed. When the Abreus ran out of money for the hotel, they stayed briefly in Marleny’s father’s van. They pulled the kids out of one school and moved them to another school farther south, where Yasmir hoped he could find work.
“We weren’t millionaires, but we lived like normal people. To go from that to this in three months, it’s hard,” Marleny said, brushing back tears. “We had jobs. We had health insurance. Every year, they got a lot of stuff under the tree because we were working.”
According to a report released this week by the Corporation for Economic Development in Washington D.C., 43 percent of families would fall below the poverty line within three months if they lost their jobs or became ill and couldn’t work.
In Florida, 48 percent of families don’t have savings to last three months.
Shelter Was “Like a Jail”
After a few nights in the van, Yasmir and Marleny asked school officials for help. Through its Homeless Trust, Miami-Dade officials were able to get the Abreus a tiny motel room.
“It was filthy, but it was better than the street,” Yasmir recalled.
And it was better than what was to come. As soon as space in a shelter opened up, the Abreus were told to leave the hotel. But they didn’t last one night in the shelter.
“She just cried and cried. She was so scared,” Marleny said of young Maribel. “It was like a jail.”
Near hysterics, Marleny called her sister, Mayra, who lives on a disability pension and isn’t allowed to have anyone other than her teenage son live with her in her rent-subsidized apartment.
“But I can’t leave them like that,” Mayra said. “We’re family.”
Yasmir and Marleny worry about how their situation is affecting the kids. They try to enforce a family routine, with 8 p.m. bedtimes on school nights for the children, even if that means the adults must go to bed too.
“You know, a child who doesn’t sleep well doesn’t study well,” Marleny explained. She added, “But this is hard for them.”
Studies have found that homelessness can have deep and lasting effects on children.
One-third of children who experience homelessness repeat a grade in school, eight times the rate for children who have never been homeless, according to the America’s Youngest Outcasts report.
The study also noted that children who experience homelessness have higher rates of physical disabilities than impoverished children in stable living situations and nearly double the level of emotional or behavioral problems.
The outlook for families like the Abreus is bleak. Nationally, the average length of unemployment was 40 weeks in December, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Each day, Yasmir walks to the local unemployment office to apply for work. So far, he’s gotten only one call back–from Pizza Hut, which needed drivers. But he doesn’t have a car anymore. Miami-Dade’s unemployment rate is improving, but at 10.2 percent in December, it still outpaced the rest of the country.
Each night, as the children get ready for bed, Yasmir worries where he will take his family if Mayra’s landlord finds out about them.
“I don’t see how I’m going to get out of this,” he said. “As soon as they find out we’re here, we’re back to the street.”