The CT Head Start-Family Shelter Partnership: Working Together to Meet the Needs of Families

Surprisingly, we are more likely to find ourselves in a homeless shelter at age one that at any other age in our lives.  [2012 AHAR (HUD, 2012) and Census Data] This remains true through age five. Half of all children in family shelters are age five or younger. In order to address this, Head Start and family shelters in Connecticut have come together to combine resources so that they can better meet the particular needs of pregnant women, infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and their families.

Through a partnership that has included the Head Start State Collaboration Office (HSSCO), the state’s HUD agency, which was formerly the Department of Social Services and is now the Department of Housing, and the state’s networks of local Head Start and shelter agencies, ongoing discussions are taking place to identify opportunities to align policies and practices that can overcome the shared challenge of serving this population of families. 

The goals of the effort have been simple:

  • increase enrollment in Head Start,
  • make family shelters more child-friendly, and
  • penetrate one another’s local networks and councils to bring the children’s voice to the housing community and the housing voice to the early childhood community. 

Each local Head Start and family shelter has designated lead staff to work together. This Head Start-Family Shelter Team uses the Early Childhood Self-Assessment Tool for Family Shelters as a guide to reflect on how they are currently meeting the needs of this shared population and what enhancements they can commit to making together. They have also created an Action Plan for moving forward. The Self-Assessment Tool focuses on things such as Health and Safety, Wellness and Development, Workforce Standards and Training, Programming, and Food and Nutrition. Through the HSSCO, a small grant program provides stipends for each team to create a Purchase List to obtain materials and supplies and make accommodations to shelters, such as mini fridges for breast milk and snacks, installing stair gates, or equipping child-friendly spaces. Inspiring are the number of additional community resources that have been generated by using small grants as seed or matching funds to access other community contributions and engage additional partners. 

Currently, a second cohort of six Head Start and Family Shelter Teams are participating in this effort. An earlier cohort of 11 Head Start and Family Shelter Teams used an earlier version of the Self-Assessment Tool and evidenced significant enhancements in all areas of the assessment. Teams were successful in establishing ongoing partnerships that continue, for example, by having a Head Start staff person on local Coordinated Access Teams. Additionally, there was a 50% increase in Head Start enrollment of children in shelters. 

The Connecticut Head Start-Family Shelter Partnership shows how working together both Head Start and family shelters are better equipped to meet the complex needs of families with young children experiencing homelessness. The Connecticut Head Start – Family Shelter Collaboration Project was the basis for the updated ACF Early Childhood Self-Assessment Tool for Family Shelters.

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Grace Whitney, PhD, MPA, IMH-E, is Director of the Head Start State Collaboration Office in CT's Office of Early Childhood in Hartford, CT and serves on the Executive Board of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. She has been working at the state and national levels for many years to highlight the unique needs of infants, toddlers and preschoolers experiencing homelessness with their families. 

Jamie Peterson is Director of Child & Family Development in Early Education at TEAM, Inc. a Community Action Agency in Derby, CT, and grantee for Head Start, Early Head Start under the MIECHV program, and, recently, the new federal Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership. She continues to be a leader in providing family services in her agency and community. 

Susan Compton Agamy is Executive Director of Spooner House, a family shelter and food pantry in Shelton, CT. She has led several major development campaigns for Spooner House which provides a range of services for individuals and families experiencing homelessness and is an active member of the housing communities, including CT's current Coordinated Access System for rapid re-housing.

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