Children who Experience Homelessness: Policy Implications

Alejandra Ruttimann (C’18) Amanda Webb (C’18) January 31, 2018


Meeting the Needs of Families with Young Children Experiencing and At Risk of Homelessness provides key guidelines regarding the need for comprehensive cooperation among service providers, educators, and community resources to reduce the vulnerabilities experienced by children growing up in and around homelessness. While the policy statement more broadly targets early childhood and housing providers, the recommendations set forth throughout the document carry paramount implications for childcare and primary school teachers. Some major applications of this policy statement include but are not limited to the identification and contextualization of a child’s disability with regards to his/her particular environment, as well as implementing individualized education strategies both inside and outside of the classroom. The Homes through Community Partnership program indicates that 84% of families experiencing homelessness are female-headed. This is due to a number of factors, including the propensity for family shelters to turn away fathers from entering with their families, both out of precaution and due to histories of domestic violence. In addition, the birth of a new child can greatly affect a parent’s ability to work and provide adequate home care, especially if the child is born to a single low-income mother. The Partnership also indicates that children growing up in poverty without stable housing are at greater risk for experiencing problems related to inadequate prenatal and postnatal care and exposure to dangerous conditions such as inclement weather or violence. In addition, children experiencing or at risk of homelessness are four times more likely to show delayed development, and twice as likely as non-homeless children to have a learning disability.

Children who are born into poverty or homelessness are often born prematurely. Babies born prematurely are at higher risk for physiological, psychological, or neurodevelopmental disabilities. Babies born at full-term are given the advantage of more mature internal systems, but when infants are born prematurely they are at an increased risk of complications such as atypical muscle tone, delayed motor development, feeding problems due to a weaker suck, and breathing issues related to underdeveloped lungs. These complications can lead to developmental delays and disabilities which last throughout childhood and can impact school performance. Children born prematurely often have decreased attention, poorer visual and motor skills, and delayed language acquisition. Early childhood educational providers and elementary school teachers must be aware of the behaviors and skill sets that are typically found in premature children in an effort to mitigate the negative impacts on the child, and to mediate the academic, social, and emotional difficulties that arise. The development and school performance of children born prematurely should be closely monitored to ensure that early intervention and early intervening services and supports are provided.

Meeting the Needs of Families with Young Children Experiencing and At Risk of Homelessness, indicates that supporting families who are homeless must be an integrated, comprehensive system as no single system is sufficient to meet all the needs of all family members and children. Every child’s living situation is different in some respect, whether socio-economic, cultural, or generally environmental. As a result, educators should be aware of the complementary programs and resources they may need to consult or work in conjunction with if a child is showing areas in one or more developmental areas and requires further accommodations or assistance. One broad recommendation that is particularly applicable to school and childcare teachers is the importance of “aligning and coordinating the design and delivery of services for the whole family.” This is particularly important for educating children with disabilities, in order to identify the child’s specific developmental strengths and weaknesses and discern what extent external risk factors or stressors are having on the child. Additionally it is critical that classroom teachers and childcare providers maintain an open, respectful and on-going relationship with the family.

Moreover, the successful integration of child-centered and family-specific needs in children with disabilities or developmental delays rests heavily on the ability of educators and early childcare providers to communicate and cooperate in providing a comprehensive support network. Services such as Continuums of Care (CoCs) are increasingly crucial. These services work to monitor the health of at-risk mothers and newborns during and after pregnancy, educate young mothers about the programs and resources available to families who are in transitional homes or of low SES, and assist families in accessing he services and supports. In conjunction with a non-restrictive learning environment where teachers can individualize the child’s learning objectives and re-define educational success by how fairly and equally he or she benefits from participating in a classroom environment.

The Policy Statement on Meeting the Needs of Families with Young Children Experiencing and at Risk of Homelessness outlines ways in which various programs, particularly, early childhood providers and CoCs can address a variety of issues. A major issue that families who are homeless confront is the lack of coordinated support systems. In a population with decreased rates of literacy and lower levels of personal advocacy, it is critical that the U.S. puts coordinated systems of care in place. This Policy recommends that early childcare providers conduct more thorough intake procedures, where housing status is taken into account.

Furthermore, the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS), Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Education (DOE) suggest referring and connecting families with different program providers rather than simply giving the family the contact information for the supports. It is suggested that perhaps assigning one single family coordinator or programmer who is in charge of integrating program services and support and insuring that services and support reinforce the goals of all. This family coordinator or programmer could then help to establish academic, social, and developmental supports for each child in the family, along with educational, social, and job assistance supports for each adult in the family. One of the main takeaways from the given Policy Statement is that departments, programs, and coordinators must take a holistic approach when it comes to handling and supporting families with young children who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Because each child and parent has different needs individualizing services and supports to the needs of each family member is critical.

Young children, particularly infants and children under the age of five, are at the highest risk of experiencing homelessness. Further, nearly 50 percent of children in shelters “in a given year” are under the age of six (p. 3). Because of this, it is imperative that the United States implements programs that both reduce these statistics and increase support for those facing this reality. Early childhood has proven to be the most critical and sensitive period for developing children, thus, a potential recommendation must address the educational and developmental needs of children under the age of five as well as those entering elementary school. Homeless children are at greater risk of falling behind their peers academically; therefore, the U.S. educational system must take care to provide protections and specific educational programs for young homeless children. One possible avenue that the system could take would be to implement after-school academic programs at shelters for young children to attend after their regular school day. Educational personnel, such as teachers and professional academic tutors, would teach these programs which would help to bolster the children’s academic abilities and maintain a continuity between school and home. The policy statement set forth by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the U.S. Department of Education (ED) recommends two-generational programs that target both the child and their parent(s). Therefore, in the possible after-school program discussed above, there could be a separate educational program for the children’s parents in order to help supports their academic needs and to increase their rates of literacy. Furthermore, the recommendations in this Policy underscore the importance of looking after individuals with disabilities. Without a proper and inclusive education, children with disabilities are at risk of becoming more isolated and falling further behind academically and socially. It is imperative that school systems set programs that enhance the learning environments of all children with disabilities who face homelessness, as education creates a platform to break the cycle of poverty and homelessness.