Policy Resource

Starting Life Without a Home

Mar 5, 2012

Young homeless children, usually an “invisible” population because they are hard to identify, have become much more visible on Capitol Hill over the last few weeks.

On February 16th, ZERO TO THREE joined forces with four other organizations and the Congressional Caucus on Homelessness to highlight the important but underrepresented issue of early childhood homelessness in America. Every year in the United States, 1.6 million children experience homelessness. And it is estimated that 42% of those children are under the age of 6. Because young homeless children don’t appear in one place (such as schools) where they might be more easily identified, researchers estimate that these are severe undercounts.

While the numbers are striking, the experiences and impacts of homelessness on each individual child are our greatest concern. Although families become homeless for different reasons – job loss, domestic violence, physical or mental illness, natural disasters, and other causes – the inherent instability and stress of the experience always jeopardizes early development. We know that babies need positive, consistent relationships and environments to develop into happy, healthy, productive individuals. Homelessness disrupts parents’ ability to provide for each of these needs: the stress of homelessness interferes with parents’ capacity to remain attuned and responsive to their baby; housing instability forces families into unhygienic, unsafe, and transient living conditions; and the poverty that almost always underlies homelessness often comes with hunger, inadequate medical care, and depleted social networks – what some call a poverty of relationships. In short, homelessness is toxic to early development; and yet it is an American epidemic.

ZERO TO THREE’s Congressional briefing, Starting Life Without a Home: Supporting Homeless Families in Nurturing Their Infants and Toddlers, sought to call attention to the prevalence and developmental impacts of this issue. In this the briefing succeeded, drawing over 100 people who packed a Rayburn Building hearing room. The briefing was organized in conjunction with The National Center on Family Homelessness, National Alliance to End Homelessness, the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, and Horizons for Homeless Children. Two of the Co-Chairs of the Congressional Caucus on Homelessness, Rep. Judy Biggert (IL-13) and Rep. Geoff Davis (KY-4), attended and shared their perspectives on the issue and legislative efforts to alleviate it. In the most moving portion of the briefing, one panelist shared her own experience as a homeless mother of four young children.

Other panelists included Mary Huber, Research Director at The National Center on Family Homelessness, who presented a portrait of early childhood homelessness (including statistics, causes of family homelessness, and common challenges faced by homeless families); Sarah Benjamin, a home visitor to homeless families and former ZERO TO THREE fellow, who discussed the developmental impacts of starting life without a home; and Kim Cosgrove, a clinical social worker and Program Director at an Early Head Start model therapeutic nursery in Baltimore, who laid out successful interventions and services for homeless infants, toddlers, and families. One of those interventions, the Strengthening At-Risk and Homeless Young Mothers and Children Program, was a collaboration between ZERO TO THREE, The National Center on Family Homelessness, and the National Alliance to End Homelessness and provided the impetus for the briefing. At four sites across the country, the project sought to provide comprehensive services for young homeless families, including housing assistance, parent education, parent-child activities and therapy, family assessments, child development services, mental health support, and early intervention. Mary Huber reported that evaluation results are showing that, following the intervention, children and parents are experiencing improved mental health, positive educational outcomes, increased earnings, and improved housing conditions.

The Homeless Children and Youth Act

Greater visibility for homeless children and youth will come this month, with the House Committee on Financial Services scheduled to vote on legislation that could help all homeless children, including infants and toddlers, and their families qualify for services more easily. Representative Biggert, a champion for homeless children and families, has introduced H.R. 32, The Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2011 along with 17 cosponsors from both sides of the aisle. This bi-partisan legislation amends the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) definition of homelessness to include children, youth, and their families who are verified as homeless by staff from four federal programs: school district homeless liaisons designated under the education subtitle of the McKinney-Vento Act; Runaway and Homeless Youth Act programs; Early Intervention programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Part C; and Head Start programs. By allowing Part C Early Intervention providers and Early Head Start designees to verify homelessness, very young children experiencing homelessness are more likely to be identified and made eligible for appropriate services.

The Act creates a streamlined, efficient referral process for homeless children to access HUD homeless services. It is a response to HUD’s recently released regulations on the definition of homelessness, which impose elaborate requirements and documentation for multiple moves and long periods of homelessness before families and youth can receive homeless assistance. These requirements make it more difficult for families with young children to receive services if they are in a living situation that may not meet traditional notions of homelessness, but nevertheless poses a threat to healthy development. The simplicity of the Homeless Children and Youth Act is modeled on successfully implemented provisions of the Child Nutrition Act and the College Cost Reduction and Access Act.

The Act provides communities with the flexibility to serve and house families and children who are extremely vulnerable and in need of assistance. Because they make these determinations on a daily basis, community-level providers are the best equipped to assess specific homeless situations and to know which homeless families are most in need of housing and services.

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