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Developmental Consequences of Homelessness for Young Parents and Their Children

Melissa A. Kull, Amy Dworsky, Beth Horwitz, and Anne F. Farrell


When families experience homelessness, both parents and children are adversely affected. The effects of homelessness may be even more profound when both the children and parents are young. Using developmental and ecological lenses, the authors describe how homelessness complicates the tasks facing young parents and their children in the early years of children’s lives. They also draw on the (limited) existing literature to make recommendations for practices that may reduce some of the adverse consequences of homelessness for young parents and their children.

Family homelessness affects far too many young parents with young children in the United States. Approximately one third of all people who experienced homelessness on a single night in 2017 were in families with children, meaning about 184,000 people or 58,000 households, and 12% of these people were in families with a parent under 25 years old (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2018). About half of the children in these families were younger than 6 years old, including 11% who were infants under 1 year old. Estimates from the Family Options Study (Gubits et al., 2015) found that 27% of families with children who are homeless are headed by a person under 25 years old, suggesting that the experience of being a young parent while homeless is more widespread than initially estimated.

A number of studies have examined the deleterious consequences of homelessness for young children (Brown Shinn, & Khadduri, 2017; Obradović et al., 2009; Sandel et al., 2018a; Ziol-Guest & McKenna, 2014), but relatively little attention has been paid to the fact that the parents of those children are often young themselves; in fact, little is known about how programs can effectively serve young families experiencing homelessness. In this article, we use a developmental and ecological lenses to focus on the requisite needs and tasks of young parents and their children in the early years of children’s lives, and we explore the ways in which homelessness can interfere with optimal health and development for both young parents and children. We then discuss implications for practice, focusing particularly on the types of programs that may address the distinct needs of both young parents and children in families experiencing homelessness.

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