Massachusetts ranks third best in the nation in addressing child homelessness, but across the country child homelessness has reached a historic high, according to a new report by The National Center On Family Homelessness, a local nonprofit.
The report, titled "America’s Youngest Outcasts," found that from 2012 to 2013, child homelessness increased 8 percent nationally — with one in every 30 children going to sleep without a home of their own.
For the same time period, child homelessness in Massachusetts rose 4.8 percent. Still, the state fared better than most others when it came to how it is addressing the issue.
The report ranked states based on scores in four areas: extent of child homelessness, child well-being, risk for child homelessness, and state policy and planning efforts. The report used federal and state data, including the U.S. Department of Education's most recent annual count of homeless children in public schools (2012-2013 school year) and U.S. Census data.
Overall, Massachusetts ranked third across all four domains, coming in behind Minnesota and Nebraska. Alabama came in at the bottom at No. 50, followed by Mississippi and California.
Dr. Carmela DeCandia, the director of The National Center on Family Homelessness, said the work of the Massachusetts Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness in bringing together different state departments to address a variety of issues beyond just housing helped give the state its high rank.
"When you are talking about kids you have to look at the issues of child well-being and the needs of families for other services like childcare and transportation and the needs for moms to be able get education and employment opportunities," DeCandia said. "So Massachusetts has been doing a lot to look at those issues."
The report also ranked the states in each of the four major areas it analyzed. Massachusetts ranked high for its state policy and planning efforts, coming in second of 50 on a number of factors including available housing units and whether the state had a plan focused on homeless children and families.
"An $8/hour state minimum wage doesn't really cover it when the income needed in Massachusetts for a two-bedroom apartment is more than three times that."Dr. Carmela DeCandia
The state, however, ranked lower when it came to the extent of child homelessness — the number of children who are homeless relative to the state population. Massachusetts ranked 18th in this category, as the number of homeless children in Massachusetts increased to 31,516 in 2012/2013 from 30,059 in 2011/2012 and 28,363 in 2010/2011.
DeCandia said this growth in the number of homeless children is due to a number of factors, including the disparity between wages and rental costs, the number of housing vouchers flattening and a decrease in federal and state funding for shelters.
The rent-wage disparity also factored heavily into the state's rank in the risk for child homelessness category, where it came in ninth of 50. For this category, the report looked at foreclosure rates, the percentage of children in poverty, the percentage of female-headed households, the number of teen births, and the percentage of households spending more than 50 percent of their income on housing.
"Massachusetts has 15 percent of children living in poverty and the biggest driving factor is the disparity between wages and the cost of living," DeCandia said. "An $8/hour state minimum wage doesn't really cover it when the income needed in Massachusetts for a two-bedroom apartment is more than three times that."
The report found about 24 percent of households in Massachusetts spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent. And, while the minimum wage is $8.00/hour, the wage needed to rent a two-bedroom apartment in the state is $24.05/hour.
In terms of child-well-being, Massachusetts ranked sixth. In this category the report looked at how children are faring in the state, focusing on children living under the poverty level, health conditions, educational proficiency for children, and the percentage of households with low food security.
Massachusetts has a very low percentage of households with low food security (4 percent) and better health care access compared to other states. DeCandia said Massachusetts' percentage of children without health insurance is 1.4 percent.
Though the report focuses on homeless children, the overall issue of homelessness has also been highlighted in recent weeks after the sudden closure of the Long Island bridge last month, which cut off access to Boston's largest homeless shelter and displaced some 700 homeless residents. While the city has set up temporary shelters, many advocates are pushing for more permanent housing options.
DeCandia said she believes the state is struggling to develop enough affordable housing.
"I think the housing stock, the inventory, the number of beds are just not enough right now to meet the need and that’s probably the biggest challenge faced by the state," DeCandia said.
In addition to affordable housing, the report also said effective solutions for addressing child homelessness should include support services for families, including education, job training, mental health care and a comprehensive needs assessment of all family members.