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Current Data on Infants and Toddlers Experiencing Homelessness

Sara Shaw

Abstract

During the first year of life children are at the greatest risk for experiencing homelessness (Perlman & Fantuzzo, 2010). Unfortunately, data on the number of infants and toddlers experiencing homelessness are extremely limited, and any data available are inadequate for a variety of reasons. There is minimal information on how many young children and families experiencing homelessness benefit from early childhood programs and support services aimed at addressing the needs of this vulnerable population. This article presents a summary of existing data and the challenges encountered in using this data to better understand the scope of homelessness during the first years of life. The author provides suggestions to improve data collection practices and the processes for identifying families and children experiencing homelessness to enhance access to early childhood services.

Teachers and the health manager at an Early Head Start (EHS) program were concerned that 8-month-old Jonell had been crying more than was typical for him for almost 2 weeks. They talk with Jonell’s mom, Keisha, to learn whether she had noticed any changes or if they had experienced any changes at home that might help explain what was distressing Jonell. Keisha shared that, due to family violence, she and Jonell temporarily moved in with friends and, because she was focused on finding a job, Keisha had not been able to apply for any assistance yet. Money was tight and they had little food where she was staying. Keisha was still breastfeeding Jonell, but she was not eating and could tell Jonell was unsettled when she fed him. What they discovered together was that Keisha was not producing enough milk and Jonell was hungry. Both Keisha and Jonell were not getting the nutrition they needed. Together, Keisha and staff secured additional food supports, and soon Jonell was eating and settling down, though they all continued to monitor Jonell’s development and health. Program staff supported Keisha to connect with community resources to address her other needs, most notably for stable housing.

Infants and toddlers are among the highest risk for experiencing homelessness, but the knowledge base to understand the true scope of the problem is inadequate, due in part to the fact that data sources available for this population are extremely limited. In addition, the existing sources of information vary regarding how they define and measure homelessness, making it harder to collect and interpret the data. Specifically, there are two operational federal definitions of homelessness (see Box 1) used widely to collect data and establish eligibility for services and benefits.

Box 1. Federal Definitions of Homeless

McKinney-Vento Education Definition:

(2) The term “homeless children and youth”

(A) means individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence (within the meaning of section 11302(a)(1) of this title); and
(B) includes—

(i) children and youths who are sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason; are< living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to the lack of alternative adequate accommodations; are living in emergency or transitional shelters; or are abandoned in hospitals;

(ii) children and youths who have a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings (within the meaning of section 11302(a)(2)( C ) [1] of this title);

(iii) children and youths who are living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings; and

(iv) migratory children (as such term is defined in section 6399 of title 20) who qualify as homeless for the purposes of this part because the children are living in circumstances described in clauses (i) through (iii).

Source: McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act 42 U.S. Code § 11434a (2)(education subtitle)


McKinney-Vento Housing Definition:
General definition of homeless individual (a) IN GENERAL
For purposes of this chapter, the terms “homeless”, “ homeless individual”. And “homeless person” means – [1]

(1) an individual or family who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence;

(2) an individual or family with a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings, including a car, park, abandoned building, bus or train station, airport, or camping ground;

(3) an individual or family living in a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designated to provide temporary living arrangements (including hotels and motels paid for by Federal, State, or local government programs for low-income individuals or by charitable organizations, congregate shelters, and transitional housing);

(4) an individual who resided in a shelter or place not meant for human habitation and who is exiting an institution where he or she temporarily resided;

(5) an individual or family who—

(A) will imminently lose their housing, including housing they own, rent, or live in without paying rent, are sharing with others, and rooms in hotels or motels not paid for by Federal, State, or local government programs for low-income individuals or by charitable organizations, as evidenced by—

(i) a court order resulting from an eviction action that notifies the individual or family that they must leave within 14 days;

(ii) the individual or family having a primary nighttime residence that is a room in a hotel or motel and where they lack the resources necessary to reside there for more than 14 days; or

(iii) credible evidence indicating that the owner or renter of the housing will not allow the individual or family to stay for more than 14 days, and any oral statement from an individual or family seeking homeless assistance that is found to be credible shall be considered credible evidence for purposes of this clause;

(B) has no subsequent residence identified; and

( C) lacks the resources or support networks needed to obtain other permanent housing; and

(6) unaccompanied youth and homeless families with children and youth defined as homeless under other Federal statutes who—

(A) have experienced a long term period without living independently in permanent housing,

(B) have experienced persistent instability as measured by frequent moves over such period, and

( C) can be expected to continue in such status for an extended period of time because of chronic disabilities, chronic physical health or mental health conditions, substance addiction, histories of domestic violence or childhood abuse the presence of a child or youth with a disability, or multiple barriers to employment.

(b) DOMESTIC VIOLENCE AND OTHER DANGEROUS OR LIFE-THREATENING CONDITIONS

Notwithstanding any other provision of this section, the Secretary shall consider to be homeless any individual or family who is fleeing, or is attempting to flee, domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking, or other dangerous or life-threatening conditions in the individual’s or family’s current housing situation, including where the health and safety of children are jeopardized, and who have no other residence and lack the resources or support networks to obtain other permanent housing.


Source: McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act 42 U.S. Code § 11302

One definition is included in the education subtitle of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (42 U.S.C. §11434a(2). This definition is used by programs and services administered by the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Education (DoEd), such as EHS and Part C early intervention services. The education subtitle definition takes into account families who stay in places not meant for human habitation, such as motels and cars, as well as families who stay temporarily with others because of factors such as economic hardship, loss of housing, natural disasters, or family discord. This definition acknowledges that some families avoid shelters and fear entering shelters because many shelters are not safe for children, or because they may fear that entering shelter will result in child welfare involvement. It also recognizes the threat to child development and learning posed by mobility.

Another definition is included in the housing subtitle of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, and it is used by programs and services administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), such as emergency shelters and public housing. The HUD definition (42 U.S.S. §11302) is more narrow and aims to focus resources on those whose homelessness is most visible, such as those living on the streets or in public shelters. HUD has further narrowed and complicated its statutory definition through regulations. (Federal Register, 2011). HUD varies the application of its definition by prioritizing benefits and services for subpopulations, such as single adults, veterans, or, recently, non-parenting youth 18 to 25 years old, and uses such terms as “literally homeless” and “chronically homeless,” thus adding even more ambiguity. When federal definitions of homelessness vary this way, across federal programs and from year to year, providers of services and families themselves become confused. For infants, toddlers, and their families, data collection cannot be combined to enhance understanding of the scope of the problem. Barriers to service access may result simply because of a lack of under-standing of criteria used for determining eligibility.

Data sources also vary widely in terms of the specific elements collected. While DoEd and HHS programs use the same McKinney-Vento definition of homeless, each funding stream collects data related to housing status differently. For instance, the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) programs (part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration) collect data annually on “adult participants by housing status” and the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF; part of the US Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families) currently asks states to include “family homeless status” on monthly case-level data reports on children and families served, whereas EHS (part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families) programs collect data on “children enrolled using homeless criteria,” “number of families experiencing homelessness that were served during the enrollment year,” and “number of children experiencing homelessness that were served during the enrollment year.” Each of these elements is likely to produce different data as they represent both child-level and family-level data and data for different periods of time. In addition to these differences, across the various federal programs, it is rare for providers to offer specific training on the McKinney-Vento education and housing definitions and when they are used; how best to determine homeless status using the various definitions; and how to access supports and services based on correct eligibility criteria to ensure comprehensive supports are successfully accessed for infants, toddlers, and their families.

There is no reliable way to establish the actual number of infants and toddlers experiencing homelessness nor to know how many children experiencing homelessness are accessing services from programs that support vulnerable families.

This clear difference in both the definition of homelessness used and the type of data collected by federal agencies and programs makes the interpretation and synthesis of data across sources impossible (Shaw, Hirilall, & Halle, in press). It also means that there is no reliable way to establish the actual number of infants and toddlers experiencing homelessness nor to know how many children experiencing homelessness are accessing services from programs that support vulnerable families (Shaw et al., in press).

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