WASHINGTON — Even though the number of homeless children in the state fell last year, Arizona still had one of the highest rates in the nation, with 62,616 such kids in 2013, a new report says.
That was one of the findings of the National Center on Family Homelessness report, “America’s Youngest Outcasts,” that used Census Bureau and Department of Education data to show child homelessness on the rise in the U.S.
The report said the number of homeless children nationwide grew by 8 percent from 2012 to 2013 to just under 2.5 million, a record high.
While Arizona’s numbers were down it still performed poorly on the report’s assessment of four different factors that can affect youth homelessness, earning an overall ranking of 45 among states.
“I wish I could say I was shocked, but I’m not, unfortunately,” said Cynthia Zwick, executive director of Arizona Community Action Association. “I think it demonstrates what happens through the disinvestment that we’ve made in families in Arizona.”
Advocates in Arizona said there is an overall “lack of concern” with how people in the state have been affected by the economy and especially the impact that it has had on vulnerable families.
“With cuts across the boards and a lack of desire on the state Legislature to increase the minimum wage, this is what we are seeing as a side effect of that,” said Rebecca Pringle, development and communications director at Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness.
The increases nationally were striking, according to the report, with the number of homeless children in the U.S. rising from a rate of about 1 in 50 in 2006 to about 1 in 30 last year.
While the national trend was up, Arizona saw a slight decrease of just under 500 homeless kids from the previous year’s number of 63,092 homeless. But Arizona’s number was still higher than states like Utah, Nevada and New Jersey, even though they each saw increases of at least 3,000 homeless children for the year.
Of the four risk factors measured in the report, Arizona came in dead last for its risk of child homelessness because of a high child poverty rate of 27 percent and a high percentage of households – 25 percent – paying more than half of their income on rent.
But the state showed promise in the category of state policy and planning, with an “extensive” plan to end homelessness that helped push it to 27th place in that category.
Arizona advocates on homelessness said that the state’s policy and planning is one of its “redeeming factors.”
“It is a step. It is a good sign,” Pringle said. “It is one of the best places to start at the policy level, which directs funding and so forth.”
Pringle said state policy and the work of organizations like hers have brought attention to the issue of homelessness. But she said people have been struggling to find affordable housing ever since the Arizona State Housing Trust Fund “took a major hit” – a recession-driven funding cut from $50 million to $2.5 million.
Zwick agreed, saying the state’s “all-around” disinvestment has involved a slew of significant cuts to programs over the years that support families in need. But she said the impact that those cuts have on children has not been taken in to consideration.
“I think that we need to hold the Legislature accountable,” Zwick said. “They’ve made decisions that will affect families for a long time.”