Childhood Homelessness and its Influence on Growth and Development

With an estimated 1.3 million children under the age of six experiencing homelessness each year,
early childhood homelessness is a silent but devastating tragedy that has a long-term influence on
cognitive development, physical health, and social-emotional well-being.

A family experiencing homelessness often consists of a single mother under the age of 27 and
two children under the age of six. Furthermore, unhoused families are more likely to include
people of color than white people. For example, whereas black children make up only 14% of all
children, they account for 53% of children who are homeless.

Despite its gravity, youth homelessness is sometimes hidden from the public eye because
families prefer to stay with friends or extended family and live in motels, hotels, cars, or shelters
rather than face life on the streets. Child and family homelessness is often overlooked as a policy
issue because it is hidden, perpetuating a cycle of vulnerability and structural barriers.
However, unhoused newborns have challenges that extend beyond their living environment, with
research indicating an increased risk of fever, respiratory infections, and allergies.

By the age of three, unsheltered children have a higher likelihood of respiratory infections,
trauma, and food insecurities than children who are housed. Even at age six, the negative effects
persist, with increased asthma and emergency room visits.

The state of homelessness influences a child’s cognitive health in addition to their physical health
negatively. A baby may be exposed to “toxic stress” during early infancy, which consists of
persistent and recurrent distress that could potentially harm vital brain development. In addition,
fifty percent of children experiencing homelessness under the age of four have developmental
delays, a rate that is three to four times that of their non-homeless peers.

Furthermore, there is no safe level of homelessness from pregnancy to postpartum, and the
duration of homelessness contributes to negative child health outcomes. As a result, the longer a
child is unhoused, the more severe the effects are on them. For example, there is an increased
likelihood of developmental delays, adverse health outcomes, hospitalizations, and obesity
among infants and children who have experienced homelessness for a duration exceeding six
months. Regardless of postpartum housing for an infant whose mother experienced homelessness
during her pregnancy, the infant is at a greater risk of developing developmental risks and being
in poor health compared to children whose mothers never experienced homelessness.


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