Young Homeless Children Step Out of the Shadows
The following article was published in the September 2012 issue of the Office's newsletter Developments. To download a PDF of the issue, click here.
Young children in Allegheny County homeless programs are no longer a largely invisible population as the local early childhood community and others work to raise awareness of their heart-breaking situations and explore ways to better meet their needs.
In Allegheny County, an estimated 49 percent of children and youth in the homeless system are under six years of age. Estimates suggest homeless programs in the county see between 400 and 900 children under age 6 each year.

"That’s just the tip of the iceberg," said Ray Firth, director of the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development (OCD) Division of Policy Initiatives. The estimates do not account for young homeless children who do not enter a program—those who, for example, move with their families between the homes of family and friends in search of temporary shelter.

And the numbers are only part of the story. Government funding and program policy set the focus of homeless programs on helping adults become self-sufficient. As a result, programs have little experience or expertise in identifying, assessing and effectively addressing the complex needs of young children in crisis. Moreover, there are no child-focused standards or guidelines available for providers of homeless services.

The good news is that human services agencies, children’s advocates, the early childhood community and others in Allegheny County are increasingly recognizing such problems and have begun to take steps to better understand the homeless service system, find ways to support families and the providers they rely on and to rally the community around these young children.

Last year, for example, OCD and the Education Law Center began work with funding from The Heinz Endowments and county Department of Human Services to improve policies and practices so that they better address the developmental needs of young children who are homeless.

Moreover, resources are available today that can immediately begin to contribute to improving the conditions of young homeless children in the county, if utilized

Why Action Is Critical For Young Children
The importance of mobilizing support for young homeless children cannot be overstated. Their development can not be put on hold while the family navigates through it’s current crisis.

As the numbers suggest, young families account for a sizable share of the homeless who find their way into shelters and programs. These families often consist of a single mother in her 20’s and her young children. And the demand for services to accommodate them shows no sign of abating. “The absolute, general consensus among people who serve the homeless is that they are seeing a rise in families and young children,” Firth said.

The urgency for taking action to address this population of infants and toddlers is underscored by the fact that while homelessness is not a benign experience for anyone, very young children are particularly vulnerable to such stressful and often traumatic experiences. Research has found that during the first several years of life prolonged activation of the infant/toddlers stress response systems and their interactions with adults play critical roles in the development of the brain and other body systems.

Just becoming homeless is stressful and likely traumatizing. And the circumstances young homeless children experience prior to becoming homeless are anything but healthy. Living in a family burdened by a high level of poverty is the norm. Exposure to domestic and community violence is prevalent for homeless children and their mothers. All of these circumstances lead to high stress levels for the parents and impacts the way parents relate to their babies and toddlers as well. A significant proportion of homeless children have experienced the child welfare system prior to their becoming homeless. The rate of depression and other mental health diagnoses among homeless families is high. Parents tend to be young and their educational attainment is typically low. Children are subjected to multiple transitions and other jarring experiences, such as family break-up or the loss of a caregiver.

Not surprisingly then, studies indicate that homeless children are more likely to experience developmental delays, physical health problems, such as asthma, develop behavioral problems, and suffer from anxiety and attachment disorders. When they enter school, they are more likely to be academically and socially behind other students. These findings are consistent with recent research on the very young child’s brain development and the impact of stress on their development.

Without buffering adult relationships, extended and chronic exposure to stress and trauma, especially for infants and toddlers, becomes toxic stress. It then contributes to developmental, health and social emotional disorders much more than we understood just a few years ago. This explains the poor outcomes that studies of homeless children find when following them over time. Chronic stress without buffering adult relationships can lead to atypical brain development, reduced growth hormone production, and the suppression of immunity even when children are immunized and diets are nutritionally adequate. These findings have been supported by retrospective studies of adults. Toxic stress experienced by infants and toddlers is strongly linked to chronic physical illness, as well as with depression and other mental health problems during adulthood, according to the Adverse Childhood Experiences study co-sponsored by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Yet, the potential negative effects of chronic stress and trauma can be “buffered”. When a young child’s stress response systems are activated within an environment of supportive relationships with adults, these physiological effects are buffered and brought back down to baseline. The result is the development of healthy stress response systems.

Improving Support
Funding and service requirements for providers have resulted in a system of services for the homeless focused on providing adults with temporary shelter and helping them become self sufficient. The requirements of government funders, such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, largely fail to consider the complex needs of young homeless children and the impact chronic stress has on their development. The resources available to homeless shelter providers and the capacity of those providers to address the needs of homeless children are limited.

In interviews, providers of services for the homeless acknowledge the lack of focus on the youngest children who enter their programs and paint a picture of a system ill-equipped to effectively deal with the challenges caring for those children present. They report, for example, that the needs of infants and young children are often overlooked in the haste to address basic issues of survival. Few housing programs make sure every child has developmental screening. Current program monitoring and standards do not appear to address the developmental needs of infants and young children. And early childhood training is the exception rather than the rule among housing program staff, most of whom are unable to do little more for young children than babysit and monitor their playtime.

“It’s not just that the policies aren’t there for young children,” said Eichner. “It’s also that the housing staff are not recognizing the significance and the impact of homelessness, stress and trauma on the younger children. They realize there are behavior problems and attachment issues. But they’re not thinking that it can have a long-term impact or that the children will remember these experiences.”
Housing programs, in general, also lack the capacity to offer young children early learning opportunities. Programs are typically more focused on school-aged children, for whom the legal requirements are better defined. They are, for example, required to be enrolled in school and have the right to attend their school of origin or one where they currently live. And the school districts they are educated in are required to provide them with transportation.

“Homeless systems don’t provide supports or expectations that providers are to provide for teaching children things like their numbers and their ABCs. Their parents often don’t have the resources or time to do that with them either,” they are seeking housing and employment for the family, Eichner said. “There are children 5 years old who are struggling with their ABCs, struggling with numbers and aren’t used to ‘circle time’ or know the appropriate manners for when they are having snacks because there isn’t a lot of structure or discipline in their lives. A lot of these children spent a significant portion of their days riding around in busses with their mother as she goes place to place for treatment, housing and employment.”

In recent years, the Homeless Children’s Education Fund, Education Law Center, and Allegheny Intermediate Unit have been very proactive in bringing attention and supports to the homeless children population and the issues that affect them, and have attempted to rally the community around addressing their needs.

The year-old partnership between OCD and the Education Law Center is taking steps to improve the system of services for young homeless children, with a focus on the needs of young children. The steps include:
  • Providing housing programs with early childhood mental health consultation services that respond to individual needs and work with staff to begin to create less stressful environments for parents and their children.
  • Working with housing providers to increase young children’s engagement in quality early childhood education services that provide a positive adult-child interaction that acts as a buffer and improves outcomes for the child.
  • Learning with housing providers how to strengthen the parent-child relationship via every day routines such as bedtime, bath time and meal time and play This also reduces stress for both parents and children.
  • Developing recommendations for state and local policy and practice, to insure that the system supports the development of homeless children from birth to school age.

“Allegheny County has many of the needed resources … maternal and child health programs, home visiting programs, Early Head Start, and Head Start” said Firth. “Leaders of these early childhood programs have taken the first steps to address the needs of very young children and their families. While homelessness will not be solved overnight, we have the knowledge and resources to help young homeless children succeed. With the introduction and utilization of effective early childhood services across the county, babies and toddlers will have a stronger foundation on which to build their lives.”

Toxic Stress: The Facts, Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University,