How Homelessness Affects Children
Posted on November 18, 2019 by CHS
Homelessness affects over half a million people across the United States, and the highest rate of unsheltered homelessness occurs in California. There are many factors that can lead to homelessness such as extreme poverty, lack of affordable housing and employment opportunities, substance abuse, mental or physical illness, or escaping violence in the home. Homelessness impacts the health and well-being of all people, but its effects on children are particularly harmful.
What is Homelessness?
The McKinney-Vento Act definition of homelessness that is used to determine eligibility for government programs and services states that “the term ‘homeless children and youths’ means individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence and includes children and youths who are sharing the housing of other persons… living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, camping grounds,… in emergency or transitional shelters,… abandoned in hospitals,… have a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings; or children and youths who are living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings; and migratory children who are living in circumstances described above.”
The Physical and Mental Effects of Homelessness
Homelessness can begin to affect children before they are born. Pregnant mothers who are experiencing homelessness may be malnourished or experience illness that can affect their unborn babies. Infants may be born with a low birth weight or other complications, and may be exposed to environmental toxins such as smog that can lead to chronic illnesses like asthma. In addition, it is less likely that children experiencing homelessness will have access to routine medical or dental care that can prevent illnesses and foster healthy development.
Children need a safe place to live and predictable routines in order to grow and thrive. Sleeping in different and unsafe places creates feelings of fear and anxiety. As a result, children do not get the sleep they need to grow, and the fear they experience floods their brain with hormones that can actually alter brain development. It is also common for children without homes to experience food scarcity. This leads to poor physical development, difficulty managing emotions, and an inability to focus on learning.
The American Psychological Association (APA) states that a quarter of the children who are experiencing homelessness have witnessed some form of violence or been separated from their parents. This has a profound impact on the social and emotional development of children and can lead to problems with depression, anxiety, or behavioral issues such as aggression if left untreated.
Homelessness impacts the education of children and youth because it is frequently delayed, interrupted, or inconsistent. This means that children may be more likely to experience learning disabilities that were not diagnosed early in school, or they may not be able to concentrate on learning because they are not getting enough sleep and food, or are experiencing depression, anxiety, or fear. Teenagers who run away from domestic violence and become homeless are less likely to finish school, and more likely to engage in behaviors that put their safety at risk.
How Can Children and Youth Get Help?
Families and teenagers who are experiencing homelessness can locate their nearest Resource and Referral Program by calling Child Care Aware at (800) 424-2246, or visiting their website noted below. Resource and Referral Programs can find shelters, food programs, health clinics, and other free or low-cost programs needed for support. There is also an online Homeless Shelter Directory (see link below), and Sesame Street in Communities provides a list of resources on their website for parents, child care providers, and educators on their website (see link below).
References and Resources:
- American Institute for Research, formerly the National Center on Family Homelessness
- An Introduction to Young Children and Families Experiencing Homelessness
- Caring for the Health and Wellness of Children Experiencing Homelessness
- Child Care Aware (To find a Resource and Referral Program)
- Effects of Poverty, Hunger, and Homelessness on Children and Youth
- Free Online Training for Supporting Children Experiencing Homelessness
- Homeless Shelter Directory
- National Center for Homeless Education
- Sesame Street in Communities: Family Homelessness
- State of Homelessness in America (White House Report)
- The McKinney-Vento Definition of Homeless