Enhancing Outcomes for Young Children Experiencing Homelessness
Locally and nationally the number of families who are homeless has been growing, and approximately 48% of the children in those families are infants, toddlers or preschoolers.

In 2009, The University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Child Development (OCD) Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation Project identified that unstable housing was a significant risk factor for the young children referred for mental health supports. At the same time, OCD became involved in a local group of early childhood providers, known as Bridges, that was addressing the unmet needs of young children in families without housing.

To support the local efforts and incorporate the lessons OCD learned from their related efforts, OCD partnered with the Education Law Center (ELC) to seek funding that would support a project addressing the healthy development of children experiencing homelessness. In January 2012, they received two-year grants from The Heinz Endowments (THE) and the Allegheny County Department of Human services to improve the community’s response to young children experiencing homelessness. In collaboration with many concerned partners representing the early childhood fields, OCD is using the following strategies to improve the community’s response to young children and families who are homeless:

  1. To build on the existing OCDEL and THE supported early childhood mental health consultation services. Consultation is provided to families in homeless housing programs to strengthen the parent-child relationship, in addition to addressing the child’s needs;
  2. In collaboration with Bridges, OCD is improving access for young children and their families to quality early childhood services ranging from Nurse Family Partnerships and Early Head Start, to Head Start, Pre-K Counts and quality child care.
  3. OCD is partnering with homeless housing programs to educate parents about strengthening their relationships with their children during ordinary activities like mealtime, bath time, bedtime and play time; to have fun with each other.
  4. ELC is reviewing existing laws, policies and practices that impact young children experiencing homelessness to identify areas in need of change to best facilitate effective, efficient service delivery across systems serving young children.

Research and practice show that many homeless children experience extreme stress without adequate adult support. That stress impacts the development of their brains and impacts their health; sometimes leading to developmental delays. That stress is considered toxic (Toxic Stress: The Facts).

"Research shows that, even under stressful conditions, supportive, responsive relationships with caring adults as early in life as possible can prevent or reverse the damaging effects of toxic stress response" (Toxic Stress: The Facts).

The combined efforts of OCD and their partner organizations will be to explore practical ways to incorporate the following conditions into homeless housing programs; increase stable, nurturing relationships with caregivers and increase access to high quality early care and education to aid children in overcoming the impact of toxic stress.

By bridging the homeless and early childhood fields, the partners intend to operate as a catalyst for change; by supporting a culture that nurtures cross-system, innovative, state and local policies, and practices; supporting the resources that promote resiliency and school success for young children experiencing homelessness and decreases the stigma and misunderstandings that often accompany homelessness. The team is working to identify policies and practices that need to be changed, to develop recommendations in early childhood centers and in policy practices, and to conduct needs assessments that will help pilot possible responses. Ultimately, these practices will help educate more people about young homeless children who are often overlooked.

For the Office of Child Development, this multidisciplinary project has helped build staff capacity and combine multiple areas of expertise.; Ray Firth, Director of Policy, is the Principal Investigator; Joan Eichner, Children's Policy Director, is the project manager Jessica Langan is the full-time Mental Health Consultant; Stephanie Groark is the Evaluation Consultant; and Laurie Mulvey, Director of Service Demonstrations, is the Consultant on Best Practice Guidelines; Nancy Hubley,of the Education Law Center, is acting as a Consultant; Andi Fischoff is a Funding Development Expert; Kerry Ishizaki is a Communications Consultant and Reem Hobeldin is a Communications Specialist for the project.

Additional Resources:

Starting Life Without a Home: To help educate policymakers and advocates about what it’s like to start life without a home, Zero to Three has produced a short video with highlights from a recent Congressional briefing on supporting homeless infants and toddlers. Starting Life Without a Home calls attention to the negative effects of family homelessness upon the developmental needs of young children and presents examples of successful intervention programs. Click here to watch the video now.