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Stemming the Effects of Early Childhood Homelessness

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Stemming the Effects of Early Childhood Homelessness

April 4, 2024


Between birth and age 3, a child’s brain makes 1 million neural connections per second. Tragically, an increasing number of infants and toddlers go through this crucial developmental period without a home – an experience with long-term consequences to their health, development and future.

A new report released by the non-profit SchoolHouse Connection represents the most comprehensive look to date at homelessness among infants and toddlers and provides recommendations for state and federal action to address the issue. SchoolHouse Connection is a member of the National Collaborative for Infants & Toddlers (NCIT), an advocacy movement committed to ensuring that every child prenatal to 3 and their families have what they need to thrive.

This report analyzes federal and other available data to estimate how many infants and toddlers experienced homelessness in 2021, both nationally and in each state; the percentage of these infants and toddlers enrolled in age-eligible early childhood development programs during the 2021-2022 program year; and the extent to which state policies remove barriers to programs and services for families experiencing homelessness.

The report estimates that nationwide, nearly 365,000 infants and toddlers experienced homelessness during the 2021-2022 program year, and alarmingly, only 11% of these children were enrolled in early childhood development programs, with enrollment rates varying significantly by state. In some states, that figure was as low as 3.5%.

“Early childhood development programs offer support for infants, toddlers and families who are homeless ranging from essential supplies like diapers and hygiene products, to services that counter the impact of homelessness on child development,” says Erin Patterson, director of Education Initiatives of SchoolHouse Connection. “These programs also facilitate vital connections to housing solutions. We must ensure that every expectant parent, infant and toddler experiencing homelessness receives access to these essential services.”

Unfortunately, many barriers persist to connecting families with programming, including simply recognizing who is in need. Lack of shelter, fear of having children removed from parental custody, and restrictive eligibility criteria for housing programs mean that most families experiencing homelessness stay in places that are not easily identified, such as in cars, motels or with other people, making this crisis largely a hidden one.

Melicia C. Whitt-Glover, Ph.D. executive director, Council on Black Health, a member of the NCIT, says “By giving practitioners and policymakers an unprecedented look at a hidden crisis, it’s our hope they will take action that will protect children during the most crucial developmental period of their life.”

  • While all states have the opportunity through Child Care Development Fund provisions and other initiatives to provide expanded programming access, few take full advantage of the flexibilities offered:
  • Only 26 states waive copayments for families experiencing homelessness;
  • Only nine states offer work requirement exemptions to parents experiencing homelessness;
  • Only 18 states provide automatic or streamlined eligibility for children experiencing homelessness to access child care programs.

The report concludes with a ray of hope and a call to action, offering specific policy recommendations at the national, state and local levels to stem the effects of early childhood homelessness, including:

  • Increasing support for early childhood programs.
  • Making children experiencing homelessness categorically eligible and prioritized for child care services.
  • Increasing safe, affordable housing options and removing barriers to homeless and housing assistance.
  • Implementing policies that will prevent families from experiencing homelessness in the first place.

To read the full report and more on the policy solutions, visit “There’s a clear, well-documented connection between housing and health. Infants’ and toddlers’ brains are rapidly developing, making them especially vulnerable to the negative consequences of homelessness,” says Dr. Sheri Johnson, director of the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and principal investigator for County Health Rankings & Roadmaps. “We can solve this. Evidence shows that programs such as Early Head Start, the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit help ensure parents have what they need to care for their families.”