Sherizon Scott says her life is on the right track, but it’s been a struggle to get there.
For years, Scott and her husband teetered on the edge of financial instability. They could take care of their growing family’s needs on their own, but only so long as everything went right, she says.
Of course, life gets in the way — kids get sick, hours get cut, there are unexpected bills for ER trips or car repairs — and when they couldn’t keep up, Scott and her husband and their five kids would move in with her in-laws, cramming into their one bedroom apartment until they could save up enough to move back out.
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“There were times that we would get it together and then something would happen,” says the 31-year-old Montessori teacher. “He’d lose a job or I’d lose a job, and one person can’t do it all on their own. It’s hard. And without any resources, we would go back."
In 2017, Scott made a tough decision: She’d separate from her husband, and take the two youngest kids and move into a homeless shelter in Fort Worth. That way, she could get help qualifying for subsidized housing to support her family, and other services to put them on a more stable financial path.
// ‘Invisible children’ //
Scott’s story shows what homelessness often looks like for families with kids, according to Carol Klocek, the CEO for the Center for Transforming Lives in Fort Worth. And she doesn’t just mean the six months spent living in a homeless shelter.
Like Scott, families usually go to shelters as their last option, choosing instead to double or triple up in the homes of friends or relatives, to live in motels or sleep in their cars for as long as they can.
“There are so many thousands of invisible children who are in these circumstances with parents who are trying to do the best they can,” she says.
Nearly 15,000 children experience homelessness over the course of a year in Tarrant County – enough to fill 27 Fort Worth middle schools – and few live in shelters or sleep on the street, according to a new report from the Center for Transforming Lives. The report draws on data from federal agencies and local Tarrant County school districts.
- Many of these kids live in single parent households, mostly moms
- Most of the parents are working, but often for wages too low to keep up with soaring housing and childcare costs
- The single largest contributor to a family experiencing homelessness is poverty
And 22 percent of Tarrant County kids live in poverty.
“This is about the tens of thousands of working poor families that are really struggling to make ends meet,” Klocek says, but fly under the radar.
Childhood homelessness is an invisible problem for a number of reasons, Klocek says, including how we think about homelessness itself.
The federal government uses several different definitions to describe homelessness. A more expansive definition of homelessness, used by the Department of Education, includes all children and youths “who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”
Most of these families are not chronically homeless, but bounce having between safe, stable and adequate housing and making alternative arrangements.
When the county’s homeless services agencies do annual point-in-time homeless counts, they use a more restricted definition, includes only people living in shelters or on the streets. Because parents with kids often avoid or don’t even know about shelter services for families, less than 2 percent of Tarrant County kids who experience homelessness show up in the official statistics.
// Long-term consequences //
According to the Center for Transforming Lives report, about half of the children who experience homelessness in Tarrant County are under the age of six. And instability during critical early years of childhood can carry lifelong consequences.
“We don’t get a do-over on that time, so those early years spent in homelessness will forever impact that child’s ability to learn, to socially and emotionally navigate the world, their long-term earning potential, their long-term health,” she says.
Homelessness in a child’s early years can also leave them more vulnerable to violence and abuse, and they often exhibit higher rates of anxiety and depression. In the long term, they are more likely to become homeless as adults, have a criminal record or rely on welfare programs.
While there are services in Tarrant County for families with kids facing homelessness, Klocek says there simply aren’t enough, and they don't always coordinate well, so families can fall through the gaps. She says the county needs a better safety net to catch families and help them get back on their feet after a financial setback: a more family-friendly homeless service system, more help for people facing eviction, more short-term financial assistance.
Still, she points out, that won’t fix the bigger structural issues that lead to family homelessness: low wages for people without much education, shortage of affordable housing, and inadequate public transit.
Childcare is also a huge factor. Tarrant County has about 22,000 more children who qualify for subsidized childcare than there are subsidized childcare seats, and Texas doesn’t provide state money for childcare at the rate of most other states.
// Looking forward //
For Sherizon Scott, it was hard to make a decision about splitting up the kids to move into a shelter that would help her get on a stronger financial path and qualify for subsidized housing. But it was worth it in the end, she says. She’s been taking classes, has an apartment she can afford, has her kids all back together. In the long run, she’s thinking about launching a business, or maybe a non-profit.
“I always take every situation and I always turn it to good. That’s just me. And I feel like you have to be that way,” she says.
Scott says she hopes all the moms who are struggling to keep a roof over their family can get help like she did to build a better life for their kids.
Carol Klocek hopes the Center for Transforming Lives can help with that. The organization is pitching a pilot program that would model a way to integrate the kinds of services families with young children need to move from homelessness to living sustainably on their own, like housing, child care, job training and job help, transportation, counseling and case management.