Carie Bires, Policy Manager, Illinois Policy Team, Ounce of Prevention Fund, Chicago, IL
A growing body of research on early brain development tells us that positive experiences during the early years are absolutely critical to a child’s success in life, whereas adverse experiences, like homelessness, can cause lifelong challenges that contribute to experiences of poverty and homelessness in adulthood. The science is clear—the early years matter, both in the classroom and at home. We support the Homeless Children and Youth Act (HCYA) because it makes it easier for communities to target housing resources to young children and families by aligning the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) definition of homelessness with the definition used by most early childhood programs, and by removing complex documentation requirements that pose barriers to families trying to access homeless assistance programs. The HCYA also provides local communities with an opportunity to employ a longer term strategy for ending homelessness that focuses on the root of the problem rather than the symptoms.
The science behind early brain development provides strong evidence to support a different approach to ending homelessness than we’re taking now. Brain architecture develops over time, with the foundation of that architecture forming in the earliest years, making early childhood the most critical, and vulnerable, period of development. Positive experiences during this time build a strong foundation for later health, well-being and future success, while experiences of adversity leave children vulnerable to poor physical and mental health and other devastating challenges in adulthood. As we age, the architecture of the brain becomes increasingly rigid, and whether constructed to support success or failure, the foundation of the brain can’t be rebuilt.
Homelessness is one of the most adverse experiences anyone can have, and for children, homelessness experiences can cause irreparable harm. Unfortunately, it isn’t always easy to see the evidence of harm that instability and toxic stress associated with homelessness inflict on children because it isn’t always easy to see homeless children at all. Thousands of homeless children stay either in motels or in overcrowded and unstable living situations with other people—sometimes with people they know, sometimes not. And they stay out of sight and on the move. Homeless families often remain hidden from view for a variety of reasons—lack of available shelter beds, past experiences of violence or victimization at shelters, and fear of child protective services involvement, to name a few.
Homeless babies, toddlers, and preschoolers don’t cycle through our jails and hospitals at a high cost to the public… yet. They don’t attract our attention. No, we don’t see homeless children, and perhaps that is one of the reasons they are not currently prioritized in our national efforts to end homelessness. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of homelessness does not acknowledge homelessness among families or youth who are staying in motels or temporarily with other people, a living situation that accounts for the majority of homeless families and youth identified by public schools. It is assumed by many that because these families and youth have a physical roof over their heads, that their needs are less complex and critical. If only that were true.
Children in all types of homeless living situations experience the negative impacts of homelessness – they are sicker more often, more likely to experience developmental delays, are more likely to have severe emotional and behavioral problems, more likely to experience traumatic events, and are more likely to experience stressed attachments to their caregivers. Indeed, a healthy parent-child attachment is one of the most basic – and important – needs an infant has. When that need goes unmet, it poses a threat to a child that is every bit as powerful and real as a heart attack. Essentially, homelessness robs children of the positive experiences and relationships they need to grow up to be healthy, functioning adults. Unsurprisingly, childhood homelessness is a common experience among homeless adults. So are mental health and health problems, developmental disabilities, and trauma. Far too many children who experience homelessness and everything that comes with it today will become the homeless adults of tomorrow.
For more than 30 years, the Ounce of Prevention Fund has persistently pursued a single goal: that all American children—particularly those born into poverty—have quality early childhood experiences in the crucial first five years of life. Through our evidence-based early childhood home visiting services, the Ounce has seen first-hand how homelessness impacts children and families. Many of our home visiting programs serve pregnant and parenting teens, a population that faces increased risk of homelessness. We find experiences of couch surfing, dating violence and histories of child abuse and neglect to be common among the young people we work with. Not unexpectedly, these young parents and their children often exhibit trauma symptoms, which sadly can be interpreted by some service providers as difficult, uncooperative or unmotivated behavior. Too few programs can meet the needs of our young parents and children. Due to rigid shelter rules, short timelines, and woefully few programs for youth that offer the developmentally appropriate supports this population requires, we see many of our young families cycle in and out of shelters. In fact, they can cycle through various homeless living situations rather rapidly—sometimes families move three and four times in a three-month period. Our home visitors follow them from shelters to abandoned houses with no heat or electricity to overcrowded and unstable situations with friends or acquaintances. These are places where the home visitors themselves don’t always feel safe visiting. All the while, that instability and continuous exposure to risk harms both the health and well-being of the baby and the mother, which is especially concerning while she is pregnant.
For these reasons and more, it is critical that we do more to end homelessness among children and families, whether they stay in shelters, motels, or on couches and basement floors. And it isn’t just a moral or emotional motive that calls us to act, rather it is the only conclusion that can be drawn given the sound science of early childhood development. The basic principles of brain science tell us that intervening early is a far more economical and effective way to address complex social problems, especially when resources are few and far between. We need to invest the resources we have more wisely, and programs that support healthy early childhood development are among the best investments we can make. Early experiences of homelessness can be prevented or ended quickly by giving communities more flexibility to target homeless service dollars to children and families, and that’s what the Homeless Children and Youth Act does. Communities are in the best position to determine who their most vulnerable citizens are and how to support them. A rigorous review of community needs assessments and gaps analysis would ensure accountability for all populations experiencing homelessness—single adults, families and youth.
It is precisely because we have too few resources in our homeless service system to support families that the Homeless Children and Youth Act is needed. High-quality early care and education programs can bring vital resources to bear in our collective efforts to prevent and end homelessness, but operating with different definitions of homelessness gets in the way of effective cross-sector collaboration that allows us to fully leverage those resources. Early childhood programs are working harder than ever to go beyond enrolling only those families who show up at our door, but to use evidence-based family and community engagement strategies to find and serve the children and families who stand to benefit the most from our services. Furthermore, in recent years, the early childhood development field has begun recognizing the disproportionate and devastating impact of homelessness on the youngest children, and is taking steps to reorient our policies and direct more resources to serving this population.
As partners, we have a lot to offer! The highest quality early care and education programs offer comprehensive services for the entire family, including support to help parents access education, find employment, obtain public benefits and engage with other services that move families toward stability. As more and more early care and education programs are serving and collecting data on homeless families, our field can contribute toward a true and accurate accounting of homelessness among families in our communities. Early childhood development is also a highly interdisciplinary and collaborative field that recognizes that positive child development outcomes don’t depend solely on what happens in the classroom -we know that a child’s environment matters, which makes it natural for us to want to partner with other providers who can impact those environments, such as homeless service providers. The Homeless Children and Youth Act would make it possible for us to see and serve the same children and families and in the process, make a bigger and more lasting impact.
The Homeless Children and Youth Act sounds like a pretty good idea because it is a good idea. The best way to end homelessness is to prevent it from happening in the first place. It may be a cliché, but it is the truth: children are our future. There are no do-overs in brain development so we have one shot to get it right. And every community deserves the opportunity to take that shot.