I’ve written before about the HOST Demonstration, which is testing strategies for delivering intensive services to adults and children in public and mixed-income communities in four cities.
In Benning Terrace, our Washington, D.C. site, we are working with the community to develop a unique set of services for youth to address the critical problems of sexual health and safety that threaten children’s life chances—high rates of teen pregnancy, HIV and other sexually-transmitted infections, intimate partner violence, and older men who pressure girls to engage in “transactional sex.”
To address these sensitive issues, we are working actively with an advisory board made up of community residents, all of whom agree that these are big problems for their community. But they are teaching us that there is an even more basic issue we need to address first—these children and youth are hungry.
The community we’re working in is 10 minutes from the Capitol, not far from the booming neighborhoods that are attracting thousands of educated young people to D.C. It is hard to imagine that there are hungry and desperate children living so close to all of this affluence. Although it is not news that D.C. has a lot of poor communities, I think most of us assume programs like food stamps (SNAP) and free school lunches have taken care of the worst problems. But we know from our research in Chicago and other cities that substantial proportions of residents in public and assisted housing report problems affording enough food for their families and that they sometimes make painful trade-offs between buying food and paying their rent and utilities.
A report from Feeding America says that Washington, D.C. has a child food insecurity rate of 30 percent—the second-highest in the nation. Sometimes kids go hungry because of parental neglect, but more often it is because the money simply runs out before the end of the month, leaving the family struggling to make ends meet.
The lack of affordable and healthy options adds to the problems for families trying to feed large numbers of kids on a minimal budget. In too many poor D.C. communities, the “ice cream truck”— basically a convenience store on wheels—is the only source of groceries, charging high prices for low-quality food.
The shocking reality is that for kids in communities like Benning, hunger may push them into risky behavior—trading sexual favors for money or food. The threat is very real—we have heard stories from people who work in the community about older men pressuring girls for sex in exchange for money to buy things from the “ice cream truck.”
If we truly want to help these children to succeed in school and have better life chances, we are going to first have to ensure that their basic needs are being met.