These are troubling trends, advocates say, because the homeless shelter was not designed for kids and housing instability often leads to poor school attendance and performance and can cause and compound trauma.
“We know that just being homeless is in itself a safety concern for kids,” said Michael Vanderburgh, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul Society, Dayton. “It’s not a good environment for them, not to have a home — we know that overall that has a negative impact on their growth and development.”
The St. Vincent de Paul Shelter for Women and Families in Dayton on average sheltered 107 children per day in October. That was highest daily average ever.
A year earlier, in October 2022, the shelter housed about 63 children each day.
Typically, September and October have the most children in shelter.
The average child count shot up in September and stayed above 100 kids per day in September, October, November and December, up through the week before Christmas.
The previous highest daily average occurred in September 2017, of 100 kids per day.
The facility on average sheltered 45 kids per day in October 2015.
The shelter in recent years also has seen significant growth in the number of single people it serves.
“I think we’re seeing more damaged families today, with single-parent households,” said John Hunter, director of shelter ministries for St. Vincent de Paul Society, Dayton. “Single-parent households statistically are more challenged in society.”
Dayton Public Schools says it now has between 400 to 415 students who have been identified as homeless. That’s up from 215 unhoused students in the 2019-2020 school year.
And the actual number of homeless students likely is higher, since some families do not tell the school district that they lack stable housing.
The Shelter for Women and Families is a high-stress, congregate setting where privacy is in short supply, said Hunter.
Hunter said the shelter’s guests are stressed out and face tough situations and decisions and they are living with other people who are also struggling.
“It’s very difficult to have a family-centered family here, when you have 40 other families around you,” Hunter said. “It becomes messy ... this is difficult for children.”
He added, “This is a very dynamic environment. ... One of the things that we know that children need is stability — shelter life is not a stable life.”
Forty-six-year-old Nakita Mathis and her 16-year-old son ended up at the St. Vincent de Paul family homeless shelter in August. Mathis also stayed at the shelter in 2013 with her two sons after she separated from her spouse.
She said the homeless shelter can be hard on children because it’s a noisy and stressful environment that is full of strangers and kids don’t really understand what’s going on.
In the family area of the shelter last week, kids ran around, played games and played on phones, tablets and computers and watched TV. The room was anything but quiet.
“When you get into these kind of situations you can feel hopeless, especially if you are depressed already,” Mathis said. “You just can’t give up. ... If you got kids, they are looking to you to be strong for them.”
Mathis and her son sought shelter after she became sick, got behind on her bills, lost her job and her car and was evicted from her Kettering apartment.
Mathis is diabetic, has depression and still needs reconstructive surgery related to a battle with cancer.
But Mathis recently left the shelter and moved into an apartment. A local nonprofit is helping cover the cost of the deposit and several months rent.
Mathis said she and her son look forward to having their own spaces. She hasn’t had her own room in years. She hopes to get a job and go back to school.
“Sometimes you have to start over more than once,” she said.
St. Vincent de Paul is doing its best, but the Apple Street facility, like the vast majority of homeless shelters across the nation, was not built for families with children, said Katherine Rowell, a professor of sociology, geography and social work with Sinclair Community College.
“It’s not conducive to kids’ lives at all,” said Rowell, who is a community researcher and has spent years studying the unhoused. “It’s a Catch-22 — you don’t really want them staying there, so it’s about trying to get them in and out as quickly as possible.”
At the emergency shelter, children and families are packed into small spaces that tend to be loud and chaotic, Rowell said.
As part of her research, Rowell interviewed kids at the shelter, who she says have heart-breaking stories.
One child has never before slept in an actual bed. Many have spent a lot of nights sleeping in sleeping bags on the ground.
Rowell said kids told her they would like to see more toys, play areas and family activities at the shelter. They said they wish the shelter felt more comfortable and more like a home.
“There’s just little to nothing for kids at a shelter,” Rowell said. “I am thankful for summers, when they can get outside and play, but in the winter, it’s really terrible.”
“You’re just in this room with a bunch of other kids, who are screaming and crying,” she said.
The shelter has books and games for kids and a space for studying and homework. But Rowell said there’s not really an easy way to make shelter life easier on kids. It’s a place of last resort that prioritizes ensuring that anyone who needs shelter can get it.
There is a major housing crisis in this community and across the country, Rowell said, and families with children are at higher risk of eviction.
A study released last fall by researchers with Princeton University, Rutgers University and the U.S. Census Bureau found that about 2.9 million children each year are affected by eviction filings.
Adult renters with at least one child in the home were threatened with eviction at an annual rate twice that of adults without children, the study says.
“We demonstrate not only that the average evicted household includes one child, but that the most common age to experience eviction in America is during childhood,” the study says.
Eviction was the most common self-reported reason why guests at the women and families shelter said they were homeless, said Jackie Scott, assistant director of mission advancement at St. Vincent de Paul Society.
If you combine the men’s shelter and the women and family shelter, about one-fifth of the people who have stayed at St. Vincent de Paul shelters said they were homeless because of eviction in a self-reported survey.
Nearly 30% of guests at both shelters said they were homeless due to family conflict, while about one-fifth said they could not find affordable housing.
About 15% of the guests said they were homeless because of mental health.
People usually are homeless for multiple, overlapping reasons, Hunter said.
What can be done
Families, especially single moms with kids, often aren’t getting the resources and assistance they need to make ends meet, Rowell said.
In many other countries, homeless kids do not go to homeless shelters — their families receive rental assistance to ensure they remain housed, she said.
Rowell said it’s more expensive to provide emergency shelter to families and children than it is to provide them with rental assistance.
She said expanding and enhancing funding for rental support would help keep vulnerable families in their homes.
“We learned a lot of lessons from the pandemic that rental assistance kept people from being evicted,” she said. “The data is so overwhelming — that you just don’t evict when people have some funding to help them.”
St. Vincent de Paul says it costs about $40 per night to house a single person, which includes expenses like food, clothing, shelter and rehousing case management services. This does not include administrative costs.
Rowell also said providing legal counsel for tenants facing eviction would help a lot, since the vast majority of renters do not have lawyers to represent them in court.
Studies have found that tenants with legal representation are evicted at far lower rates than people who do not have counsel.
Rowell also said she wishes single parents with kids who receive federal housing vouchers would be allowed to pool their resources with other voucher-recipients in similar circumstances.
But she said that is not permitted.
Vanderburgh, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul Dayton, said kids are safer at the shelter than they are living on the streets or “out in the unknown.”
He also said the shelter would have fewer guests if more community members were willing to work together to live in more communal settings.
Many people want to live alone, he said, even when that is not realistic or tenable because they lack the income or life skills needed to manage that.
“We could spend endless piles of money trying to solve things, but it’s not the money that’s going to do it,” Vanderburgh said. “People need to learn how to love one another. They need to realize that life should be long, it should be difficult, it should be joyous, and you should have other people to help you out along the way.”