T he number of young children experiencing homelessness in the United States has grown in the last decade. T he recently released Early Childhood Homelessness State Profiles show more than 1.4 million children experiencing homelessness in 2017-2018 . That is one out of every 16 young children. What does that look like? Picture a preschool classroom and imagine that one of the young children sitting on the floor listening to the teacher read a favorite book is living in a shelter, on someone else’s couch, in their family’s car, in a cramped motel room , or perhaps sleeping somewhere different every night . The ramifications of this level of instability on children and families are tremendous. Experiencing homeless ness as a child can cause negative effects that last a lifetime . And there are concerns today that the COVID-19 health pandemic will increase the prevalence of family homelessness.
Supporting the well-being of these young children and their families is an urgent task and one that is critical to improving the long-term educational outcomes of children nationwide. That is why CCSA, in partnership with the Administration for Children and Families, is pleased to release the validated and revised Early Childhood Self-Assessment Tool for Shelters . This tool is designed to guide shelter staff in creating safe, developmentally appropriate environments for infants, toddlers, preschoolers , and their families who are experiencing homelessness.
Often young children experiencing homelessness do not receive the social-emotional, educational, medical, mental health and/or special services they need to thrive. Infants and toddlers are particularly impacted by homelessness , with increased risk for early harm to their health and development, as well as having parents with poor physical and mental health, and additional hardships for families. In fact, infancy is the age at which a person is most likely to live in a HUD-funded shelter.
Shelter staff can help ameliorate these issues for young children by providing a safe, developmentally appropriate environment with connect ions to community partners who support the early childhood development . The Early Childhood Self-Assessment Tool for Shelters has abundant resources and guidance on best practices that shelters can use to assess how their programs can best meet the needs of vulnerable young children and their families. The tool also encourages shelters to develop relationships with local resources , like early intervention and home visiting programs, child care , and WIC, for help implementing new practices and to promote cross-program referrals. Finally, the tool guides shelters through an action plan ning process to promote positive experiences for children and families.
Knowing that safe and reliable child care is a key component of parents’ abilities to gain stability , the self-assessment tool encourages shelters to build collaborations with early childhood programs in their communities. Many early childhood programs have expedited enrollment for families experiencing homelessness, and Head Start/Early Head Start programs are required to prioritize enrollment for these families. Enrolling in early learning programs gives children a chance to participate in age-appropriate activities that foster growth and development and learn at their own pace. Children who receive high quality early childhood education are more likely to be employed full-time and have more financial and personal assets as middle-age adults .
The public health and economic crises created by the COVID-19 pandemic are disproportionately impacting people experiencing homelessness. Shelters and other housing assistance programs, most of which are strained in normal circumstances, may be struggling even more to keep up with demand during this period. We hope this tool will provide much needed support.