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Investing in Our Future: McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants
Federal Policy Brief | December 2, 2013
It is becoming increasingly clear to researchers and developmental psychologists how important the very early years are for the future health, education, and well-being of our nation’s children. Infants’ brains develop as they interact with their caregiver, sharing smiles and gauging responses. Diminished levels of interaction can have lasting negative impacts on children’s development. Toddlers learn through interaction with the world around them – touching, playing, exploring – with the support of attentive and interactive caregivers. Recognizing the importance of these early years, policymakers are exploring how to support children’s development as part of a strategic investment in the nation’s future. One important element for children’s healthy development cannot be overlooked: a home.
Each year, approximately 170,000 children age 5 or under enter an emergency shelter or transitional housing program with their parents. Researchers have found that the younger the child, the greater their risk of experiencing homelessness; infancy is the time in life in which people are most likely to become homeless. Pregnancy is also a risk factor for homelessness. Many women will give birth in the midst of a homeless episode, returning from a hospital bed to a shelter placement. Some children who experience homelessness will not be able to access a safe place to stay at all. On a single night in January 2013, approximately 31,000 persons in families with children were without shelter, residing in formal and informal campgrounds, cars, garages, abandoned buildings, and city streets.
Providing the developmental supports children require is challenging when families lack housing. Parents dealing with a housing crisis, who are uncertain each and every night where they will stay, will have difficulty being as attentive and responsive to young children’s need for stimulation and interaction as they might require. Shelter environments are typically not conducive for the play and exploration required for toddlers to learn about their environment. Children may be confined for long periods of time in small spaces, or even in strollers, because of parents’ fear about the chaotic environment around them and a desire to keep their child secure. In some instances, parents try and find other places for their children to stay to minimize their exposure to homelessness, sending children to stay temporarily with aunts, grandparents, or family friends. Understandably, homelessness and the trauma and uncertainty that often accompany it can be enormously stressful for parents and children alike. The experience disrupts an important period of time in young children’s development – time that cannot be recaptured.
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants Program restores children and their families to housing quickly. Local communities are investing resources from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to rapidly re-house homeless families. Rapid re-housing helps families quickly escape homelessness through providing housing search and landlord negotiation assistance, temporary rental assistance, and follow-up case management and linkages to needed services. Rapid re-housing dramatically reduces the time families are homeless. Once back in housing, parents can set up the structure and provide the consistency that young children require to thrive – an important precondition for children’s development and well-being.