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Homeless in the Suburbs

Eleven-year-old Devin Bodiford's eyes blink open in the back room of a suburban Denver church. The clock reads 5 a.m. when his mother whispers that it's time to get up. His little sister and brother stir in their cots next to him. Two trash bags filled with the family's clothes are stashed in the corner; a tube of toothpaste, an alarm clock, a bottle of shampoo, and schoolbooks line the only table. For five days this has been home. In three more he will move again, to another church, to another cot in another room.

"Being homeless," the fifth-grader explains, "means you don't stay in one spot and have to move around a lot. It gets kind of confusing."

A lot of people think they know what homelessness in this country looks like. They see an urban image of the downtrodden sleeping in alleys and pleading for spare change. Yet as the economy worsens and joblessness soars, there's a new and equally troubling picture emerging: Homelessness is creeping into the once-protected enclaves of the suburbs, but it remains a mostly hidden phenomenon. By day, families fade easily into the landscape; by night, they sleep in shelters, in shabby motels, or on the couches of relatives and friends. "Suburban homelessness is among the most invisible because it doesn't fit our stereotypes," says Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, in Washington, DC.

Devin attends school in middle-class Jefferson County, CO, where the number of identified homeless students is double that of the nearby Denver city school district. School officials say they saw a 100 percent increase the first two months of the 2008 school year. Duffield says 330 school districts across the country identified at least the same number, or more, of homeless students in the beginning of the 2008-2009 school year as in the entire previous year.

Counting homeless children and families is complicated. The Department of Housing and Urban Development defines homelessness in the traditional way: living in shelters, in cars, or on the streets. It estimates that in 2007 more han 341,000 children lived in a shelter at least once over a 12-month period.

But the Department of Education, mandated to gather data so schools can provide support for homeless families, expands the traditional definition to include parents and children living in motels and "doubling up," or staying with friends and families because of lost housing. Its preliminary statistics estimate there were nearly 800,000 homeless students in the 2007-2008 school year, a 15 percent increase from the previous year.

Others say even those numbers are too low. The National Center on Family Homelessness, a nonprofit advocacy group, released a report in March that estimated 1.6 million, or about 1 in 50, children in the United States experienced homelessness at least one day between 2005 and 2006. "No one knows the real number in the suburbs because the communities don't want to know," says Laura Flynn, a housing services administrator for a Salvation Army family shelter in Olathe, KS, a suburb of Kansas City, MO, and county seat of one of the most affluent counties in the nation.

What everyone can agree on, though, is that the face of homelessness is changing. Ellen Bassuk, Ph.D., president of the National Center on Family Homelessness, says that when she began studying homelessness in the 1980s, families with children made up less than 1 percent of the homeless population. Today they are nearly 40 percent -- and experts say the numbers don't even fully reflect the recent economic downturn, since there's often a lag between financial trouble and homelessness.

The long-term prognosis for these kids is not good. Research shows that homeless children who live in chaotic settings or change schools often are more likely to be at least a grade level behind in math and reading. They also are more likely to repeat a grade. They have behavioral and emotional problems three times as often as other children, and more than half will not graduate high school. Worse, suburban homelessness is also the hardest to fight. Suburbs rarely have the kind of social-service infrastructure found in cities. Public transportation is more difficult, distances are farther, and shelters are rare. The stigma is also greater. But all the statistics and research in the world can never really explain what it's like to live in a place filled with four-bedroom houses, and none to call your own. You have to see it through the eyes of those who've experienced it. Here, three families offer a glimpse into their lives:

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