The impact of homelessness on the health and education of children

Dr. John Cook, Senior Research Scientist for Children’s HealthWatch in Boston, was the keynote speaker at The Dorothy Rider Pool Health Care Trust’s symposium on housing and homelessness issues in September 2016. During his presentation Dr. Cook explained that research has proven that the first three years of a child’s life largely set the trajectory of their cognitive development, school readiness and achievement, and educational attainment. Ages 0-4 are a critical window of time when the brain architecture develops, and it is influenced by many factors, including stress. While moderate stress can induce learning, toxic stress damages the brain architecture of young, developing children.

Homelessness is toxic since the absence of stable, quality, affordable housing is a significant generator of family stress. Dr. Cook explained that this kind of stress can impact the child’s health, bring with it food insecurity issues, and lead to developmental delays and underweight children.

Dr. Cook used the analogy of treating affordable housing as a ”vaccine” to prevent negative health and social impacts on the future of all children. Quality housing has multiple, long-lasting benefits to individuals and society.

“Being homeless is traumatic for anyone, but especially for a child who may or may not understand what is going on,” said Marc Rittle, Vice President for Impact for United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley (UWGLV). “As a result, today’s social workers, teachers, and administrators need to be experienced with trauma-informed work.”

The Impact of Homelessness on Childhood Education

“When there’s no stability at home, children are unable to concentrate at school. When children have to be the caregivers for other family members they often miss school,” said Rittle. “We know that poor attendance means they will be less successful in their student career. So there’s a definite link between being homeless, missing school, and not succeeding in school.”

“Many of today’s students don’t come from the traditional family background that most of us grew up in years ago,” said Thomas Parker, Superintendent, Allentown School District (ASD). “More families are living below the poverty line and experiencing homelessness as a result, and the number in our district is growing. Poverty is often generational and it can be difficult, if not impossible, for a parent to get their family out of.”

“One of the most important things we can do as educators is help to reduce or remove the barriers to equity that students in our district and classrooms encounter,” said Dr. Joseph Roy, Superintendent of the Bethlehem Area School District (BASD). “We want them to have full access to all learning opportunities. Inadequate or nonexistent housing is a barrier.”

“It’s important to realize that just because a child isn’t living on the street doesn’t mean that he or she is not homeless,” explained Dr. Roy. “Bouncing around from house to house, sleeping on the couch at a friend or family member’s home is still considered being homeless. When parents can’t afford the rent, they tend to move frequently and that creates a transitory population. When that happens there is a disruption to the student’s learning because they are often changing schools based on where they are living at the time. That makes it difficult for consistent learning.”

Parker agrees. “When students bounce around from home to home it affects their school attendance, and when that happens too frequently it ultimately affects their educational achievement. Since school districts teach at different paces it can be difficult for a student in transition between districts to catch up, which creates learning gaps. This is even more difficult if they are an English as a Second Language student.”

Providing Much-Needed Help to Families

“At the 14 UWGLV Community Schools, we use full-time, in-school directors in conjunction with a site-based leadership team of educators, parents, and community and business partners to provide students with wraparound care,” said Rittle. “Together we link them and their families to the agencies in the region that can provide intervention. This can be for mental health, behavioral health, food insecurity, sheltering, clothing, and more.”

“ASD Home and School Visitor Russell ‘Rooster’ Valentini acts as our homeless liaison and works with families to identify if they are already homeless or about to be facing homelessness,” explained Jacqui Scott, Director of Community and Student Services, ASD. “The information is kept confidential with only essential district staff members knowing about the situation. We put support in place for the child with school administrators, and encourage our staff to reach out to local social service agencies and nonprofits to get the students and families the help they need.”

“ASD is committed to excellence and the education of the whole child, so we are proud to be an open and willing community partner with the City of Allentown and the social service agencies that can help us support our students,” said Parker.

Helping older children and teens

Older children will sometimes opt to leave a household rather than stay in a situation where they are abused, neglected, or unwanted.

“Youth become homeless for a variety of reasons,” said Lisa Weingartner, Senior Vice President, North East Independent Living and Emergency Services for Valley Youth House (VYH). “The most common reasons are family dysfunction or conflict and violence, history of abuse, poverty, mental health issues of parents or the youth, drug and alcohol issues of parents, and LGBTQ youth. Many youth are scared to stay in adult shelters because the residents there are much older and sometimes are dealing with issues of severe mental health and drug addiction. Developmentally speaking, youth need age-appropriate support.”

“It’s important for the community to know that for our purposes, the term ‘youth’ is generally defined as under 21 years of age, not just under 18,” continued Weingartner. “Also, unstably housed youth or homeless youth often don’t appear homeless. Youth more often bounce from one friend’s home to another friend’s home, and may spend some time on the streets, and some time with others. It is important not to assume a youth has stable housing.”

The Lehigh Valley Emergency Shelter run by VYH works with youth who are between the ages of 12 to 18 and are homeless, runaway, or are having conflict with their families. Youth between the ages of 18 and 21 can also come, but only if they are in county care. The Synergy Project, a street outreach program, is designed to help runaway, homeless, nomadic, and street youth, age 21 and under.

“Our Synergy Project initially looked for youth at schools and at local agencies. Now, we have shifted to looking for youth in more remote areas, at abandoned buildings, railroad tracks, bus stations, laundry mats, etc.,” Weingartner explained. “VYH has put more of a focus on mobility, including adding an RV and Jeep in order to get to where the youth are and to provide more services onsite.”

She encourages members of the community who encounter a minor they believe to be homeless to give them Synergy Project’s phone number, 484 866-5556 or the shelter number, 610 691-1200.


Note: This article is one in a series of four dealing with homelessness in the Lehigh Valley. Please read our other articles on adult homelessness, affordable housing in the Lehigh Valley, and the LVHN Street Medicine Program.

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