As the dog days of summer approach and temperatures soar, so do the number of families experiencing homelessness in the U.S. Shelters see great need in winter when people seek protection from the elements. What may come as a surprise, however, is the spike in homelessness – known in the human services sector as the “summer surge” – in summertime.
Nationwide, shelters report monthly applications can increase as much as 25 percent during summer months. Data tracked by Strategies to End Homelessness, a Cleveland, OH, organization that works to end homelessness, has shown that the number of homeless families requesting shelter can increase by nearly 50 percent during summer months.
A study by the National Recreation and Park Association found that public parks and recreation centers are often a refuge for individuals experiencing homelessness. In Los Angeles, for example, encampments of homeless individuals and families are a common site in many parks. Some areas more stringently enforce restrictions on tents and loitering, which impacts individuals without housing.
Overcrowding and higher utility bills
For families doubled up with others, the end of the school year can make the crowded living situation untenable with children no longer in school all day. Families usually stay with others from the same income strata, so “host” families don’t typically have the means to accommodate long-term guests.
The summer surge can vary by geographic region – for instance, milder climates are more conducive to sheltering out-of-doors in cars, tents, even on the streets. Terry Lindemann, executive director of Family Promise of Las Vegas, says she always sees a summer surge. She notes that in places like Las Vegas, where temperatures can exceed 100 degrees and inclement weather shelters close in the evening, families must find relief from the heat.
“What we hear from families come May or June is that the people they were staying with earlier in the year can no longer support the utility bills with another family under their roof,” Lindemann says. “You can’t live without air conditioning in the summer here, and a $300 or $500 electric bill isn’t uncommon. Higher utility bills mean there’s less money for other necessities, like food.”
She adds, “Host families reach their tipping point, and having all those people in one home is too much. Then suddenly all these families are looking for shelter.”
Education and eviction
Education also plays a role. Parents may not want to disrupt the school year or will endure poor housing conditions to spare children embarrassment at school (stories abound of landlords neglecting spaces until families are compelled to leave). There’s an eviction component to this cycle, too. Landlords may be less hesitant to evict tenants once the weather warms up.
No school = no support
Summer break presents a new set of concerns for students. Children experiencing homelessness, who already face added challenges at school, often fall a grade behind after the summer hiatus. Statistics show these children are more likely to repeat a grade, be placed in special education programs, or even drop out of school.
Also, in summer parents must provide more meals for children who may receive free or reduced-price meals during the school year, and working parents with young children must find affordable childcare.
Like many of the choices low-income families must make, there’s no easy answer. So, what can be done about the summer surge?
At Family Promise, affiliates are finding creative ways to handle the overflow. For example, Family Promise of Greater Cleveland has rented space in an unused building at a deep discount during the summer months to shelter more families. Family Promise of Great Falls, MT, has partnered with a local university and sheltered families in dormitories that normally sit vacant all summer. Family Promise of Monmouth County recruits retired teachers over the summer to volunteer as tutors to help maintain students’ academic momentum from one school year to the next.
However, these are Band-Aids. The problem is a larger and complex issue and one of the root causes of homelessness in this country – a lack of affordable housing.
An ounce of prevention
One of the most efficient ways to address homelessness in any season is prevention. Homelessness prevention programs like those offered by Family Promise can keep families stably housed so they avoid the trauma of a housing crisis in the first place.
You can learn more about homelessness prevention efforts at Family Promise here.