One in 45 children in the USA - 1.6 million children - were living on the street, in homeless shelters or motels, or doubled up with other families last year, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness.
The numbers represent a 33% increase from 2007, when there were 1.2 million homeless children, according to a report the center is releasing Tuesday.
"This is an absurdly high number," says Ellen Bassuk, president of the center. "What we have new in 2010 is the effects of a man-made disaster caused by the economic recession. ... We are seeing extreme budget cuts, foreclosures and a lack of affordable housing."
The report paints a bleaker picture than one by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which nonetheless reported a 28% increase in homeless families, from 131,000 in 2007 to 168,000 in 2010.
Dennis Culhane, a University of Pennsylvania professor of social policy, says HUD's numbers are much smaller because they count only families living on the street or in emergency shelters.
"It is a narrower standard of homelessness," he says. However, Culhane says, "the bottom line is we've shown an increase in the percentage of homeless families."
The study, a state-by-state report card, looks at four years' worth of Education Department data. It assesses how homeless children fare based on factors including the state's wages, poverty and foreclosure rates, cost of housing and its programs for homeless families.
The states where homeless children fare the best are Vermont, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and Maine.
It finds the worst states for homeless children are Southern states where poverty is high, including Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas, and states decimated by foreclosures and job losses, such as Arizona, California and Nevada.
At the First Light shelter in Birmingham, Ala., the fastest-growing group is women with children, executive director Ruth Crosby says. She says the emergency shelter, which houses about 125 women and children, is full every night. An overflow room with mats on the floor fills up every night, too.
"We try not to turn people away," Crosby says. "Poverty in Alabama is severe at best. We were already in dire straights, and then you get the economy. It's kept us on the bottom."
Shelly Jordan, a case manager for the homeless in Hattiesburg, Miss., says it has become common for two-parent households or families headed by professionals to turn to the city's lone homeless shelter.
"People had savings or unemployment and that's run out," she says. "This is their last resort."
A small portion of homeless households with children, 4,355, are headed by veterans. That's less than 5% of the veterans who are homeless.
The number of homeless veterans fell 12% from 76,329 in 2010 to 67,495 this year, according to a report released Tuesday by HUD and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan credits the decline to more rental assistance and programs to get veterans into permanent housing.