How Families and Children are Affected by Experiencing Homelessness

About 30 percent of those experiencing homelessness are adults and children in families. January 2020 was the first time since 2010 that the population of families experiencing homelessness did not decrease, with roughly 16,667 individuals in families living in an unsuitable environment across the nation. Children experiencing homelessness suffer from higher levels of emotional and behavioral problems, increased risk of serious health problems, are more likely to endure separation from their families and have more issues in school. 

Families often experience homelessness due to a lack of affordable housing, unemployment, poverty, and low wages. For women, the most common cause for homelessness is domestic violence, which can leave her and her child on the streets. Other causes included disagreements with family members or an unexpected expense. Adults that are suffering from homelessness are also already under a lot of stress, which makes it difficult for them to be a parent, especially of young children. 

Most families experiencing homelessness are run by a single young woman with a restricted education, who has young children. According to Ellen Hart-Shegos, in a report for the Family Housing Fund titled, “Homlessness and its Effects on Children” she explained, “Nationally, 35 percent of women coming into shelters are pregnant versus 6 percent of the general population, and 26 percent have given birth within a year of seeking shelter.” Even before birth, children that are faced with homelessness can be susceptible to substance abuse, chronic and acute health problems, and a lack of prenatal care. Substance abuse harms the overall development of the baby and there is a 40 percent rate of substance abuse in women who enter assistance programs. Women may also suffer from other chronic acute health problems that will affect the development of their baby. Children born in these conditions are more likely to have a low birthweight, be exposed to a dangerous environment, and have little access to care, such as essential immunizations. Babies born with low birth weights and whose mother did not have access to prenatal care are more likely to die in the first 12 months of life, and those raised in overcrowded shelters are exposed to diseases and illnesses before they establish a proper immune system. Trying to raise a baby in a shelter can be very difficult and can interfere with mother and child bonding. So already a child born to a family suffering from homelessness has a challenging start in life. 

Compared to children in typical homes, children experiencing homelessness are more likely to experience chronic diseases, behavioral health concerns, developmental delays, hunger and malnutrition. According to the National Center on Early Childhood Health and Wellness, “Children experiencing homelessness are sick at twice the rate of children who have homes. They also go hungry twice as often as children who have homes. Children experiencing homelessness have twice the rate of learning disabilities and three times the rate of emotional and behavioral problems of children who have homes.” While homeless shelters provide food to the needy, it is not nutritionally adequate for infants and younger children, who need more protein and fiber in their diets. Their poor nutrition can lead to stunted growth and anemia. Sixteen percent of children enduring homelessness have one or more chronic issues, compared to nine percent of housed children. Unhoused children have twice the rate of respiratory infections and are twice as likely to have a positive tuberculosis skin test. Asthma is very common in children who are enduring homelessness and they are hospitalized 3 times the rate of average asthma patients because of cockroach infestations, molds, smoke and overcrowding that they have to live through. Generally, children who experience homelessness visit the emergency room and are hospitalized more often than housed children. The true issue is that these children are not being seen by a primary care physician regularly because of their circumstances, which can make their conditions worse. 

What causes the behavioral challenges in children is the constant moving that families experiencing homelessness make and the inadequate living conditions. When a child’s care arrangements are constantly being changed it makes it difficult for them to create bonds with others and can negatively affect their cognitive ability, leading to behavioral problems. Developmental delays that children who are enduring homelessness can experience primarily involve impulsivity and speech. Emotional problems they can come across are; crying more easily, reacting more intensely when upset, overreacting to small trials and are easily distressed. One in five children, ages three to six years old, who experience homelessness show extreme emotional distress that warrant professional intervention, and twelve percent have clinically diagnosed issues with anxiety, depression and withdrawal and sixteen percent have behavioral problems that are shown by severe aggression and hostility. Because of these issues children that experience homelessness have more trouble in school and have lower test scores than their housed peers.  Also, children who experience homelessness move schools often so it is easier for them to fall behind.

A lot of this information seems disheartening, but children are usually quick to recover both physically and mentally if their family is put on the right track. The overall solution to help these families is to get them permanent housing. In order to help prevent children from being affected by enduring homelessness, families need to be the priority for those giving out assistance. By getting help from a shelter to have them find low income housing, many families experiencing homelessness could benefit from the financial assistance and case management available to get them into permanent housing. They can also get help with childcare, employment assistance, early childhood services, income support and mental health counseling. Having children who suffer from homelessness receive consistent health screenings and educational assistance also goes a long way in their overall physical and mental health. 

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