By Carol Klocek, CEO, Center for Transforming Lives, Ft. Worth, TX

For many years, the vulnerabilities of children experiencing homelessness have been glossed over on the assumption that their innate resilience would overcome the impact of homelessness.

As someone who worked in the field, I would often hear, “Oh, they’ll never remember.”  Today we know better. We know more about how the brain develops and about how trauma impacts brain development.  There is a growing recognition among providers that these early years are critical for establishing a foundation for emotional, mental, and physical wellbeing, and that we don’t get a second chance at early childhood.

Young children are particularly vulnerable to trauma, and trauma exposure is detrimental to all aspects of child development.  Children living in homelessness have a higher risk for Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), including forms of abuse, neglect, and family dysfunction that often go unrecognized and untreated (American Psychological Association). The more ACEs young children experience, the greater the likelihood of significant health conditions such as cancer, lifelong emotional difficulties, and adult homelessness.

Homeless service providers, however, are already strapped: financial and personnel resources are stretched too thin and the funding emphasis is on housing.  The services the children need, such as specialized education or therapy, take a back seat for case managers with high caseloads and housing-oriented performance measures.  What can homeless assistance programs do to make a difference?

Since 1989, the Center for Transforming Lives has been educating young children who live in shelters and programs for families experiencing homelessness, as well as children from other low-income families, in our child development centers.  After the bus arrives each morning, welcoming smiles and a warm breakfast start the day before lessons begin. Special attention is paid to reducing noise levels and providing a calm, nurturing, and stimulating environment with plenty of time on the playground. No matter her ability and background, each child has an individualized plan made just for her so that she is as ready for kindergarten as possible. For little ones with delays in language, social-emotional skills, and gross motor abilities, this work can be especially intensive and long-lasting.

The Center for Transforming Lives’ approach started with an intentional focus on the whole family–not just the parent or only the child.  We identified non-traditional funding streams and braided state and local funding with federal sources. This approach has allowed us to:

  • Train all staff annually in Trauma-Informed Care, including specialized teacher training
  • Incorporate a two-generation approach so that all programs have components for adults and children
  • Conduct developmental screening for all children, such as Ages & Stages
  • Convert traditional child care classroom space that had been partially funded by HUD Supportive Services funds to Early Head Start programming
  • Adopt a parenting support model such as the Parent Café program to build protective and resiliency factors in families
  • Offer clinical interventions for highly traumatized children and families, such as Trust Based Relational Intervention, to build secure attachments between parents and young children.

In addition, Center for Transforming Lives employees are encouraged to go beyond the boundaries of what is traditional.  By partnering with local foundations, we have added funds to help with child care and overcome employment barriers; we engage on-site with all local shelters to create relationships that facilitate referrals; we consider the child’s point of view in service delivery, in waiting areas, and in conversations to anticipate how each experience will impact the child.  We’ve invited homeless liaisons within neighboring school districts to participate in projects and task forces to address family homelessness in our community.

Our path to do more for children experiencing homelessness is based on decades of work in early childhood and housing, but our path is not the only way. Homeless and housing providers who want to make a difference can get started through partnerships and low-cost opportunities that help drive larger changes. Here are a few ideas:  

#1 Establish partnerships with organizations that are mandated to provide services in your community. There are a number of federal programs that prioritize services for homeless children, but too often these programs aren’t connected with homeless service providers. Building partnerships with these programs help them meet their mandates, while at the same time increasing supports for families and children who are served by homeless or housing programs. These include:

#2 Identify and implement an evidence-based parenting program that builds protective and resiliency factors in families. The best of these engage the parents themselves as teaching resources, as done in the Parent Café model. Parents co-lead conversations to help other parents understand the impact of trauma on parenting. We’ve done this with parents in local shelters with a powerful response; in one instance, all 16 parents who went through the series decided collectively to continue supporting each other after the sessions ended.

#3 Train all your staff on Trauma-Informed Care, then evaluate and modify your procedures, forms, and practices to ensure a trauma-informed approach is in place across your organization. Having a trauma-informed approach has changed our intake process and our crisis intervention responses and allowed residents to support each other as they work through conflict. Educate your employees and volunteers on the impact of trauma, including homelessness, on the developing brain. Help employees understand how their own trauma histories impact their work and encourage self-care practices throughout the day.

#4 Be a voice for children among homeless service providers in your community, including the local Continuum of Care (CoC). We’ve worked with our local Continuum of Care to establish a Task Force on Family Homelessness to create changes in our system of care. This addresses both relatively small tasks (like ensuring resource lists include programs that account for the needs of families)as well as larger system issues (such as the rate at which landlords reject Housing Choice vouchers). The homeless services system developed in our community focused on serving single unaccompanied adults, primarily men, and recently has begun to adapt to the needs of families with young children.

What does success look like? Our work is best understood when we look at the families who are the center of our efforts. Maria was a mother of three who’d become homeless after a lifetime of experiencing violence. Her youngest child had significant developmental delays and required intensive care. Maria had not finished high school and the compounding problems created depression that interfered with her ability to function. The family enrolled in our rapid rehousing program and were placed into an apartment. Then the real work started.  Maria’s youngest child qualified for Early Head Start, where health care and occupational therapy could be provided on-site weekly for her youngest. Maria was connected to the homeless liaison at the school district to ensure her oldest child was safely transported to his home school. Maria found full-time employment, and we connected her with a volunteer who could help tutor her in math so that she could pass her high school equivalency exam. She participated in counseling to work through her overwhelming feelings of isolation.  

Today, I see Maria drop her children off in the early mornings, moving her youngest into his wheelchair, far more interactive than the doctors hoped that he would be, playfully putting her daughter’s dropped mittens back on her hands, and confidently talking with her child’s teacher about things at home. Her oldest child has received a Children’s Savings Account scholarship, increasing the likelihood that he will someday attend college.

There is no cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all solution to family homelessness. If we had not worked with Maria to find individual and holistic answers for her family, their years of homelessness most likely would have continued, further devolving into child welfare placements and lack of education for her children, and all but ensuring adult homelessness.  The expense to society would be astronomical.

Real solutions are as complex as the families who experience homelessness. But if we truly want to end family homelessness in our communities, we must take the time to find and create real solutions for real families.    

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