Today, like every Thursday, is my play day – I spend an enriching two hours at a shelter for families who are experiencing homelessness through the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project. As an early childhood enthusiast and former preschool teacher, I was already familiar with the benefits of learning through play. What I wasn’t familiar with was the effects of homelessness on young children. The more I’ve interacted with children and families in my local community, the more curious I’ve become about the national landscape. How many young children in the US experiences homelessness? How does homelessness affect young children? What role could early childhood education programs (and policies around them) play in mitigating the effects of homelessness?
Estimating the exact number of children experiencing homelessness is difficult – not all families live in shelters and families can experience multiple episodes of homelessness. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act defines homeless children and youth as those who do not have a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” and includes children living in shelters, cars, public spaces, or doubled up (living with family, friends, or non-relatives). Data from homeless shelters are generally the only source of data for very young children. In 2010, 183,375 children under age six lived in a shelter (over half of the child-age population in shelters). Sadly, this number reflects just a portion of young children experiencing homelessness – many more have no permanent home, moving from housing to housing. Families constitute the fastest growing segment of those experiencing homelessness.
Does it matter where children are so long as they have a roof over their head? Research shows us that it in fact does. Continuity is a critical piece of health child development – one that children without inconsistent housing lack. Episodes of homelessness pose a number of issues for young children:
- Poorer health–access to health care, in particular vital immunizations and checkups, is often difficult to get to for families with insecure housing. Homeless children are more likely to experience health problems such as asthma and ear infections.
- Developmental delays–“homeless children are four times more likely to exhibit developmental delays and are twice as likely to experience learning disabilities than their housed peers.”
- Stressed relationships with parents–parents, too, suffer from the effects of not having consistent housing, such as depression, stress, and anxiety. This, in turn, can affect their relationships with their children.
- Toxic stress–continuous homelessness or frequent episodes of homelessness can contribute to toxic stress, which can lead to long-term negative effects on a child’s development, health, and learning.
The effects are apparent in even the youngest of children, a recent analysis “shows that children experiencing homelessness or high mobility begin Head Start at age three with poorer socio-emotional, cognitive, and health-related outcomes on average than their low-income, stably housed peers.”
Early childhood education (ECE) programs provide a proven way to support both children and their families. They facilitate access to health care, foster children’s development across multiple domains, and provide parenting supports. An ECE program can serve as a consistent and safe place for children to grow and learn.
Yet fewer homeless children (15 percent) than low-income children (57 percent) are enrolled in preschool programs. While Head Start is available to all homeless childrenand the federal McKinney-Vento Act mandates states to provide equal access to pre-k education to homeless children, actually obtaining a spot in one of these programs is a challenge. Not all states provide pre-k and both state pre-k and Head Start programs often have wait lists. Another barrier is a lack of information: homeless parents may not be aware of the programs available to them and their children. Increasing access to, and awareness of, home visiting programs, Head Start, pre-k programs, and other early learning programs are policy solutions that would mitigate the detrimental effects of living in homelessness.
In addition to children and families benefiting from expanded access to ECE programs, society would also see a return on investment. On a personal level, I know I benefit from my interactions with the children I visit with, because I am affected and inspired every week by their innate love of learning– their curiosity, their desire to explore their environment, their unwavering desire to master new skills. Ensuring access to early childhood education for young children experiencing homelessness is the strongest tool we have to cultivate that love for learning and let it flourish.
- Melissa Dahlin, CEELO Research Associate