Homelessness affects the whole family

Finding housing is not enough to prevent lasting damage in their children’s development

BRATTLEBORO — Finding a solution for the seasonal overflow shelter for the upcoming winter season is a relief for many in the community.

The overflow shelter primarily provides a warm place for those who have nowhere to go during the coldest months. In our community, we do not let our fellow citizens face exposure and possible death because they do not have a home.

While the potential dangers of exposure are increased during the winter months, the risks of homelessness are occurring year-round. Specifically, children who are homeless are vulnerable to experiencing many complicating issues that impact their physical and emotional health.

Unfortunately, this impact can unleash long-term, cumulative effects over a lifetime.

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The impact of homelessness on a child's development occurs before birth. Pregnant women who are homeless more often lack prenatal care, poor nutrition, and chronic stress, all of which can affect the baby's development.

These infants are more likely to have low birth weight, to receive checkups and immunizations irregularly, and to live in a stressful environment.

All of these factors - particularly a stressful environment - put a child at risk of not developing optimally, and they can adversely affect brain development.

A child's brain is developing very rapidly in the earliest years; 80 percent of brain development happens by age 3 and 90 percent by age 5. Having children in positive environments that support such development creates the strong foundation they need to be successful in school and beyond.

Children who are homeless more often lack adequate food. They are exposed to or directly experience violence at higher rates. And they are at greater risk of being separated from their families and placed in foster care, a system that is not ideal for child development.

These experiences create chronic stress and produce a physiological response that weakens their ability to develop optimally.

A report from the Family Housing Fund, “Homelessness and Its Effect on Children,” notes that by 18 months, children who are homeless often begin to demonstrate a regression in speech and toilet training, and ultimately 75 percent of homeless children under the age of 5 have at least one major developmental delay, while 44 percent have two or more.

These children are also less likely to be enrolled in an early education program, one environment that could counter some of these negative effects.

Clearly, homelessness is not good for children.

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Finding housing is not enough. Supportive services are also important. The risk factors associated with homelessness do damage to families, not just children, and it is critical that we work to offset those damages to create the positive environments necessary for children to develop optimally.

We believe that all families want to do what is right for their child; understanding what children need to learn and grow will help families provide that environment. Certainly, stable housing is part of that foundation, but other services are needed: long-term supportive housing, substance-abuse and mental-health treatment, access to health services, parenting education (specifically for families who may not have experienced a supportive childhood), after-school and academic support, and nutritional support.

The report from the Family Housing Fund outlines several strategies for maximizing those services. It is exciting that some of these ideas are being realized in Groundworks' shelters, creating continued possibilities for making progress on ending homelessness in our community.

As we prepare for winter, it is imperative that we keep the larger picture of the impact homelessness has year-round. The responsibility for building solutions and making a difference belongs to all of us.

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