As summer arrives 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. But shelters nationwide report a “summer surge” when applications increase by as much as 25 percent.
Overcrowding and 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. Also, these families usually stay with others from the same income strata, so host families often don’t have the means to accommodate long-term guests. The physical distancing requirements brought on by the COVID-19 crisis only exacerbated the situation, forcing more families who were doubled up to seek shelter.
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. At Family Promise of Las Vegas, Executive Director Terry Lindemann says she always sees a summer surge. She notes that in places like Las Vegas, where temperatures can exceed 100 degrees, families must find relief from the heat.
“You can’t live without air conditioning here,” Lindemann says, noting a $500 electric bill isn’t uncommon. “Come May or June, higher utility bills mean less money for other necessities, like food.”
Many families receive spring tax rebates that last them a few months, but by summer that money runs out. Danielle Butler, executive director at Family Promise of Wake County, NC, observes a pattern every year: Families that lack budgeting skills often spend the money trying to improve their quality of life.
“We call it ‘the tax season of homelessness,’” Butler says. “I understand why families would choose to spend that money for a motel. If you’re living in your car, you’d rather have somewhere to go. But it’s not always the best plan financially. By June, the money’s gone.”
A situation like this is exactly why Family Promise emphasizes budgeting and planning, she adds.
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, explains Executive Director of Family Promise of Monmouth County, NJ, Christine Love. She says landlords may be less hesitant to evict tenants once the weather warms up. The COVID-19 eviction moratorium delayed eviction for nonpayment of rent temporarily, and some states have announced short-term rental assistance programs, but their impact remains to be seen.
No school = no support
Many children struggle academically, and Love has seen them fall behind after the summer hiatus. Lack of access to technology can prevent children from keeping up during the break, a challenge many families also experienced with this spring’s remote education.
Also, in summer parents must provide more meals for children who received free or reduced-price meals during the school year and working parents with young children must find affordable childcare. Few daycare centers have remained open during the health crisis, and at centers that are accepting children, the risk of infection is real. Do parents continue working to provide for their families and risk exposing their children to disease, or do they abandon their jobs to protect their family’s health? Like many of the choices low-income families must make, there’s no easy answer.
So, what can be done about the summer surge?
Family Promise Affiliates have found creative ways to handle the overflow. For example, Family Promise of Greater Cleveland, OH, rents unused building space at a deep discount to shelter more families. Family Promise of Great Falls, MT, has partnered with a local university to shelter families in dorms that normally sit vacant all summer. Family Promise of Monmouth County recruits retired teachers to tutor students, and all Affiliates help families hone budgeting skills to avoid common financial pitfalls.
But these are Band-Aids to the summer surge. The problem is a larger and complex issue and the root cause of most homelessness in the U.S. – a lack of affordable housing.
An ounce of prevention
Perhaps the most effective way to address the seasonal increase in homelessness is prevention, Love stresses, explaining that Family Promise’s prevention and diversion programs prevent families from losing housing in the first place.
“We can help with financial support – security deposits, rent – but also comprehensive support like life skills, job searches, school issues,” Love says. “If we can keep families from becoming homeless, we’ve solved part of the problem.”