Supporting Young Children: Connecting Emergency Shelter and Transitional Housing Programs to Early Care and Education

October 8, 2019

Photo courtesy of the BELL project.

Janice (not her real name) was a senior in high school and living in emergency housing with her infant daughter. Access to child care was critical for achieving her goal of graduating on time. However, she faced barriers that are typical for families experiencing homelessness:

  • Emergency housing providers were unaware of the different early care and education programs available in the area and how families enroll.
  • Both the housing and early care and education providers were unaware of special rights for families experiencing homelessness that allow faster access to childcare and other resources.
  • Janice was also unaware of these rights and did not have anyone to help her navigate available resources.

Eventually a housing case worker learned about the Building Early Links for Learning (BELL) project and referred Janice. BELL staff helped equip Janice and her housing providers with the information and confidence to advocate for the young family. Janice enrolled her daughter in a high-quality childcare program near her high school and fulfilled her goal of graduating. She is now living independently with her daughter.

Emergency and transitional housing programs for families serve more young children than any other age group. In 2017, across the U.S., about half of all children and adolescents staying in shelters were under six years old, totaling about 142,620 young children. Homelessness threatens healthy development, especially for these young children. However, contexts that are responsive to the needs of early childhood, like high quality child care, home visiting programs, and preschool, are powerful supports that protect healthy development and resilience.

Building Connections

Staff of the BELL project.    Photo courtesy of the BELL Project.

The BELL project is administered by the People's Emergency Center in Philadelphia. It strives to implement recommendations within the Policy Statement on Meeting the Needs of Families with Young Children Experiencing and At Risk of Homelessness, released by U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Education in 2016. BELL connects early care and education programs to family emergency shelter and transitional housing providers to better respond to the needs of young children experiencing homelessness. Derived from the developmental science of resilience, the BELL model emphasizes the importance of high-quality early childhood programs and other responsive contexts that support early development – contexts that families often become disconnected from when they move to shelter.

BELL has three primary aims:

  • increase the developmental appropriateness of emergency shelter and transitional housing programs for young children
  • encourage relationships between providers in the housing and homelessness services and early care and education systems
  • increase enrollment in high quality early care and education programs for families in emergency shelter

BELL works with the Philadelphia Office of Homeless Services and 18 family emergency shelter and transitional housing providers. Each housing provider has an “educational liaison” responsible for the needs of young children, as required by the HEARTH Act of 2009. BELL helps support these liaisons, with information and other resources, to ensure families are connected to early care and education programs. BELL organizes trainings and “meet and greet” events that bring together staff from both the housing and early education systems. BELL also pairs staff from both systems each year to complete the ACF Early Childhood Self-Assessment Tool for Family Shelters . They evaluate specific shelter spaces, policies, and practices on how well they support young children.

Building Capacity

BELL also recently hosted the Young Children Experiencing Homelessness Summit, bringing together 300 participants from the housing and homelessness sector, early care and education systems, and other stakeholders. The BELL model is an example for other communities trying to address the challenge of collaborating and connecting resources to best meet the needs of young children experiencing homelessness. One challenge identified by participants is determining who will take responsibility for linking the two systems and identifying needed resources to support the effort. With support from Vanguard Strong Start for Kids and the United Way, BELL plays the intermediary role between early care and education and housing and homelessness service providers within Philadelphia. Suburban and rural communities that participated in the summit rely on their own local resources to guide their work. Ultimately, it takes creative local action to fulfill promising federal policy changes to meet the early care and education needs of children experiencing homelessness.

Read more about BELL on the People’s Emergency Center website and in the March 2019 issue of the journal Zero to Three . Or watch a short video produced by BELL.

For updated information on Head Start locations, visit the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center website .

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