The statistics on child homelessness in the United States are nothing short of alarming. In 2010, 1.6 million American children were homeless at some point during the year. This problem has been worsening in recent years—according to The Hechinger Report, there was a 58 percent increase in student homelessness from 2007 to 2013 alone. While this surge occurred during the Great Recession, many families are still recovering, especially those with young children. In fact, about 40 percent of homeless children are between the ages of 0 and 5.
Homelessness can be detrimental to people of all ages, but as a recent Administration of Children and Families (ACF) report explains, it can be particularly damaging to young children’s development, sometimes permanently affecting their health and well-being. Research indicates that children who experience homelessness are more likely to have developmental delays, behavioral issues, and suffer from toxic stress. It can also have serious implications on school readiness. The National Center on Family Homelessness reports that “Homeless children are eight times more likely to be asked to repeat a grade, three times as likely to be placed in special education classes, and twice as likely to score lower on standardized tests.”
High-quality early childhood education programs can cushion the negative effects of homelessness, providing children with stability, a safe environment, and helping them develop the skills needed to succeed in school and in life. It is crucial that this vulnerable population has access to such programs. While older children are guaranteed access to public elementary and secondary schools in their local districts, homeless children under five have limited access to education opportunities. Early education programs often don’t have the capacity to accommodate all eligible children, and homeless children face additional barriers like lack of proper documentation for enrollment, frequent mobility, and limited transportation that lead to their underrepresentation.
ACF identifies Head Start as one of several federal initiatives to correct this issue. The 2007 Head Start reauthorization attempted to address the underrepresentation of homeless children by prioritizing their enrollment. According to the Office of Head Start’s annual Services Snapshot, Head Start served approximately 48,600 homeless children last year, making up 4.5 percent of enrollees. While this is not an insignificant number, the program is not reaching anywhere near the number of eligible homeless students.
Of course, Head Start is not the only early education program that can provide services for children experiencing homelessness. The ACF report highlights two states that are using Race to the Top- Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) grants to address the needs of homeless children. Massachusetts and Oregon are building relationships and increasing communication between various state and local agencies that work with homeless families.
The Massachusetts Coordinated Family & Community Engagement program is working to help coordinate entities, reach homeless families wherever they are, and educate families about available services. For example, state officials are teaching homeless service program providers about early childhood development and developmental screening as well as sharing information about early education and care options. The state is also bringing “high quality early learning programs into easily accessed public spaces” like libraries and museums in an effort to reach homeless families.
Oregon is using RTT-ELC funds to create 15 Early Learning Hubs throughout the state that aim to increase school readiness for the state’s most at-risk children, including those experiencing homelessness. Through this initiative, the state is coordinating different programs that serve young children, such as public pre-K, health care, child care, and homeless services. The goal of bringing these programs together is to make it easier for families to receive the services they need.
The early childhood education programs and other supports these states are providing can help to put homeless children on a path toward a more successful future. Massachusetts and Oregon are working to strengthen local support systems as a way to address the unique barriers faced by homeless families, and ACF suggests other states look to them for examples of potentially promising interventions.