Identifying children experiencing homelessness in early childhood is critical for better targeting of federal, state, and local resources and to encourage early intervention and improve a child’s developmental path.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2018, one-third of all people who stayed in a homeless shelter were families with children, and half of all children living in federally-funded emergency and transitional housing were 5 years-old and younger. This is a staggering number of young children who are experiencing homelessness.
Homeless infants and toddlers are entitled to access health care, including mental health services, free and appropriate public education, and early identification of and intervention for developmentally delayed or disabled children. However, the National Center for Homeless Education finds that they are often overlooked because they are not being identified by health care professionals as needing early intervention, have difficulty with diagnosis of developmental and mental health due to mobility, and suffer from a lack of timely assessment for service provision.
Children’s experiences in their first five years have a profound impact on their socio-emotional development and mental health outcomes. The isolation, instability, and trauma associated with homelessness can contribute to a range of behavioral and mental problems throughout their lives.
According to Dr. Jack Shonkoff of Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, experiences of homelessness in early childhood expose children to “toxic stress”—a strong, prolonged activation of the body’s stress response systems. An expert on the subject, Dr. Shonkoff explains that in addition to creating short-term changes in behavior, toxic stress in early childhood can disrupt the brain’s critical early development, leading to permanent changes in brain structure and function.
These disruptions can result in long-term impairments to learning and behavior and chronic stress-related mental illness. Available research suggests that 50% of homeless children under the age of four have developmental delays, a rate three-to-four times greater than that of children who do not experience homelessness.
The financial and legislative resources needed for states to protect young children experiencing homelessness already exist. There are multiple pieces of federal legislation (Title V of the Social Security Act, IDEA, and the McKinney-Vento Act) that work to protect homeless children’s rights, encourage early identification of developmental delays and mental health problems, and support intervention by qualified professionals.
As for funding, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) designates $20 billion for health-related expenditures, with $4 billion targeted toward mental health, including community mental health services block grants, and the expansion of Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics. In addition, ARPA has a separate $140 million funding stream for children’s mental health efforts, including increasing pediatric mental health care access, expanding the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, and providing mental health training to child care and educational workers.
First, states must do a better job of identifying homeless children under age six. The latest available state data from the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) is from 2018-2019. Amidst the COVID-19 crisis and the recent expiration of the U.S. ban on residential evictions in July, the number of children currently experiencing homelessness and at increased risk of homelessness have likely drastically increased. Additionally, ACF collection efforts often overlook infants and toddlers, instead focusing on school-aged children experiencing homelessness.
To better identify young children experiencing homelessness states can:
- Collaborate with IDEA federal Child Find efforts and Part B and C programs, family shelters, and shelters for pregnant and parenting teenagers;
- Train state Head Start programs’ staff to identify homeless children during enrollment;
- Publicize information about the McKinney-Vento Act in pediatricians’ offices, free and low-cost health clinics, preschools, and application offices for TANF, WIC, and SNAP;
- Conduct community assessments that include data on homelessness, levels of poverty among families, student mobility, and trends in foreclosures, evictions, and availability of affordable housing; and
- Include a housing questionnaire as part of school districts’ enrollment packet to screen for McKinney-Vento eligibility and including questions about students’ younger siblings.
Once identified, states need to screen homeless children under age six for developmental and mental problems on a large scale. Due to the prevalence of developmental delays and socio-emotional problems, states should automatically provide all homeless children under age six with regular screenings to enable early identification of and intervention for disabilities and conditions.
Organizations in some states have already begun collaborating with Child Find, a national intervention program under IDEA, on a small scale to serve homeless children. For example, as part of the Child Find project, the Philadelphia Health Management Corporation, a nonprofit public health organization, partners with family shelters, local government agencies, and child care providers across the Delaware Valley to identify and screen homeless infants and toddlers. Early intervention specialists screen children and initiate referrals to trained child development specialists. The program currently services 90% of family shelters in Philadelphia.
Expand funding for state early intervention programs, which are available in every state and offer early intervention services to infants and toddlers with physical delays, cognitive delays, communication delays, self-help or adaptive delays, and social or emotional delays, and 1make all young children currently experiencing or having previously experienced homelessness eligible for early intervention screenings and services.
Finally, states should connect screened homeless children with qualified specialists for consultation on their diagnoses and treatment. Early detection and intervention can have a substantial impact on children’s long-term outcomes.
States can initiate a state-wide community-based model for early intervention. One example is the Homeless Health Initiative by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia—the program has directly collaborated with six major family shelters in the area to connect homeless children with developmental delays to trained health care professionals. States can also require that early child care and early education providers receive ongoing professional development and certification on infant and toddler socio-emotional development and intervention models. Both the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act and the Child Care and Development Fund Final Rule already provide incentive and opportunity to increase the training of early childhood workers in order to enhance the provision of infant-early childhood mental health services.
Children experiencing homelessness are constantly overlooked across the country. As we know, the isolation, instability, and trauma associated with homelessness has a profound impact on children’s socio-emotional development and mental health outcomes. States should support these children by better identifying them, expanding funding for early intervention, and partnering with qualified specialists and organizations to help support them.
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