Children without homes rarely enrolled in early learning programs that can save them

Children without homes rarely enrolled in early learning programs that can save them

For infants and toddlers experiencing homelessness, enrollment in an early learning program can be a major boon. Quality child care and programs such as Early Head Start can keep young children on track developmentally, while also allowing staff to connect families with housing assistance and other services.

But new research in 20 states including Michigan shows that less than 8% of infants and toddlers experiencing homelessness are attending an early childhood program.

“The reach of these early learning programs for children experiencing homelessness is not what we need to see if we actually want to see children truly thriving in their lives and in their education,” said Jennifer Erb-Downward, senior research associate at Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan. “And it's an opportunity that we're missing.”

Around 1.3 million children younger than 6 are experiencing homelessness, a “traumatic experience that harms young children and has been found to be associated with delays in language, literacy and social-emotional development,” according to SchoolHouse Connection, a national nonprofit working to overcome homelessness through education, and the organization behind the new research.

Little kids are actually at the highest risk of experiencing homelessness; nationally, individuals are most likely to enter shelter or transitional housing as infants, followed by young children from ages 1 to 5.

But counting them — essential for serving them — has always been a barrier.

“One of the challenges that we face is that there is no single program when we're talking about early childhood,” said Erb-Downward. “This means that we're looking at numbers across multiple different programs, making it much harder to figure out how many children in these very early years are experiencing homelessness.”

Once children get a bit older, it’s a little easier to identify those without stable housing. Public schools identified 1.5 million children experiencing homelessness in the 2017-2018 school year — the highest number ever recorded. But experts point out that the rate is certainly higher, since that figure represents the number of children known to school officials to be experiencing homelessness.

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Families in these difficult circumstances might think they can’t access early childhood programs: They lack a permanent address; they might not be able to find that birth certificate or immunization record they assume is required for enrollment; they can’t always find or afford transportation to a center.

Add to that a lack of awareness among early care providers about identifying and assisting these kids, and many families experiencing homelessness just never bother enrolling their children.  

“The years from prenatal to age 3 are the foundation for all future learning behavior and health,” said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection. “We know that homelessness can have long-lasting consequences, but it doesn't have to. High quality early learning programs can mitigate the harm of homelessness and can help young children thrive.”

For this study, researchers applied U.S. Department of Education estimates for the number of first-graders experiencing homelessness to the population of children under the age of 3.

“This really represents a very conservative way of estimating the number of children in these very early infant toddler years who are experiencing homelessness,” said Erb-Downward. “But it gives us a really, really critical starting point, because even with this very, very conservative estimate, we see a huge gap in the number of children who we estimate to be experiencing homelessness and the number of children who are actually receiving these very, very critical supports.”

Longer periods of homelessness have been associated with worse health outcomes for children. The stress it causes in young kids can lead to harmful changes in brain and body function, contributing to higher levels of stress-related chronic diseases later in life.

“The younger and longer a child experiences homelessness, the greater the cumulative toll of negative health outcomes, which can have lifelong effects on the child, the family, and the community,” researchers wrote in a 2015 Housing Policy Research brief.

Experiencing homelessness as a baby — and even before birth — can have deleterious health effects. The 2015 research found that young children who experienced only prenatal homelessness were more likely to be in fair or poor health and more likely to have been hospitalized since birth compared with children who did not experience prenatal homelessness.

Caregivers of children who experienced homelessness as babies or toddlers also reported those children to be in fair or poor health, in addition to being at higher risk for developmental delays compared to children who never experienced homelessness.

That 2015 research also found that infants who experienced homelessness for longer than six months were significantly more likely to be at risk for developmental delays, to be in fair or poor health, to require hospitalizations and to be overweight.

Later in life, experiencing homelessness detracts from students’ ability to perform in school. Nearly half of Michigan students who were homeless were also chronically absent from school – 2.3 times the statewide average. Students struggling with homelessness fared worse educationally and continue to face educational risks even after being housed.

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The newly released research findings showed that just one out of every 13 infants and toddlers experiencing homelessness in Michigan was enrolled in an early childhood program. Of those who were, 63% of them participated in an Early Head Start program.

In Michigan, 1.9% of enrolled public school students are identified as homeless — around 27,000, and a bit higher than the average for Midwest states. That number is a notable decrease from the previous two school years.  

Around three-quarters of these children spend their nights “doubled up” with another family, while 12.6% of them stay in shelters or transitional housing, 8.9% stay in hotels or motels, and 2.4% are unsheltered, sleeping in cars, abandoned buildings or outdoors.

The definition of homeless used by programs such as Early Head Start are different from the one used by the U.S. Department of Housing, which doesn’t count adults who double up with another family or who chronically couch surf as homeless.

The point-in-time method of counting adults who are sleeping in shelters or outside means no one is getting the full picture of homelessness. Identifying young children in these situations and targeting their parents for housing assistance and other services could have meaningful impact for families.

At the highest level, Erb-Downward pointed out that the expanded child tax credit resulted in a drop in childhood poverty. That public policy brought the national child poverty rate to a historic low of 5% — half of what it had been. “Funding that type of program could have a huge impact on families in reducing poverty,” she said.  

Other policy recommendations in the report released Wednesday were to double down on efforts to collect data and implement federal policies, including the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. That legislation, which applies to public preschools, mandates that children experiencing homelessness can enroll immediately without the typically required documents, continue attending their preschool even if they move out of the attendance area and receive transportation to preschool.

That legislation also requires school districts to have a point person expressly dedicated to identifying children experiencing homelessness and linking them with services and support. The report authors point out early childhood programs could have a similar position.

States have a role to play, the authors write, in strengthening the practices that connect families with young children experiencing homelessness to high-quality early childhood programs. Small things can make a big difference, such as extending deadlines for families to submit required documents, an allowance Michigan has made.

Michigan already waives the child care co-payment for families experiencing homelessness — a major expense even at a reduced rate that many parents would struggle to pay. It also grants automatic eligibility for child care with no income test, and expedited processing.

But other states, notably Illinois, prioritize children experiencing homelessness for public preschool outreach and recruiting.

On a more local level, recommendations focused on improving community outreach and building staff awareness.

Erin Patterson, Director of Education Initiatives at SchoolHouse Connection, recommended expanding the use of navigators, which some states implemented using rescue plan funding, to increase outreach to families experiencing homelessness.

“They're providing a bridge between our early childhood systems and our K-12 systems, which are historically disjointed and siloed but can actually work together not just to increase identification but provide seamless supports and services and those warm handoffs between pre-K and kindergarten years, so that so that a family doesn't have to start all over again and hope that someone will see that they are experiencing homelessness,” said Patterson.

Aminah Wyatt-Jones, VP of Child Development Programs at Ada S. McKinley Community Services in Chicago, suggested building parent ambassadors into the program model of early learning programs.

“They are the ones that have a trust within their communities,” Wyatt-Jones said. “They are the ones who are knowledgeable and have lived experiences of being in those programs and can communicate that into their larger community.”

Many more recommendations can be found in the report. 

The next phase of the research by SchoolHouse Connection with support from the Pritzker Family Foundation will be to identify states where policies and practices have led to higher rates of enrollment, in the hopes of replicating them nationally.

Jennifer Brookland covers child welfare for the Detroit Free Press in partnership with Report for America. Make a tax-deductible contribution to support her work at Reach her at

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