Lifting up homeless children

We can mitigate developmental harms from unstable shelter life

WHEN WE THINK of the homeless, we often imagine adults who might be battling addiction and mental health issues, but the truth is that 18,000 children experience homelessness in Massachusetts each year. Children experiencing homelessness are shuttled from place to place, night after night, often doubled up with relatives or friends, sometimes sleeping in cars or in emergency rooms.

Family homelessness in our state increased by 94 percent from 2007 to 2018, the second-largest increase among any state in the nation, according to the latest US Department of Housing and Urban Development homeless report. While these statistics are troubling, the least recognized victims of this crisis are children under the age of six years old.

Of the children under the age of six who experience homelessness in Massachusetts, approximately 20 percent end up in the family shelter system with their parents. While this provides a more consistent living experience for children, who typically share a small room with their parent, shelters are not designed with children in mind.

Often, these are institutional environments with adult rules where the primary focus is helping the parents get back on their feet, find education, employment, or job training and, ultimately, stable housing. While shelter staff are hardworking, committed, and dedicated professionals, few have any training in trauma-informed approaches to supporting children. Neither the spaces nor policies reflect the needs of children in shelter. The toxic stress of homelessness has been proven to negatively impact children’s health and brain development during the most critical developmental period. Without intervention, this toxic stress can cause lifelong negative impacts.

There is no end in sight for family homelessness in our state, and while our communities work to address the root causes, there will not be an overnight solution. In the meantime, we can and must devote more resources to these children. Given that approximately 50 percent of the children in shelters are under age six, shelters should include child-appropriate spaces with developmentally appropriate materials children can use to play and learn.

Horizons for Homeless Children has partnered with more than 90 shelters across Massachusetts—with 15 more on the waiting list—to install child-friendly rooms, called Playspaces, that reflect the needs of children from infancy to age six experiencing trauma. The Playspaces are designed to give children a dedicated place to play and grow while their parents attend important programming, like case management meetings and education programs. But funding for these playrooms comes privately through Horizons and isn’t covered by the state. Certainly, there’s more that must be done for our children experiencing homelessness.

Research has consistently demonstrated that children experiencing homelessness can suffer from developmental delays, both cognitive and social-emotional, as a result of these circumstances. The average length of stay in a shelter in Boston is 12 months, which, for our youngest children, is a full year of the most important period in their brain development. High-quality early education can mitigate the impact of this trauma and prepare children experiencing homelessness to enter kindergarten on par with their peers, ensuring they don’t begin their school career behind. Childcare and high-quality early education offer children experiencing homelessness a safe and stable environment, the structure of a daily routine, healthy stimulation, and nurturing relationships with adult educators. The importance of this care during the early years of a child’s life cannot be underestimated.

There are several steps that should be taken. First, all children in shelter should be screened for the developmental delays so often caused by the trauma of homelessness. Second, children in shelters should be given both access and funding to attend high-quality early education programs during the day. This is why, for the past several years, Horizons has put forth legislation—An Act Providing Immediate Childcare Assistance to Homeless Families, filed by Rep. Marjorie Decker and Sen. Joan Lovelywhich would provide critical access to early education and developmental screening to children under age five as they enter shelter. This year, we must find the political will to pass this critical piece of legislation for the sake of the children. If we care about the future of our state, we must do better by its children.

Meet the Author

Kate Barrand

President & CEO , Horizons for Homeless Children
It is time our state takes a hard look at family homelessness and recognizes it for what it is: a significant issue with many causes and impacts, one we must not allow to limit the potential of our Commonwealth’s youngest.

Kate Barrand is president and CEO of Horizons for Homeless Children.