The truest victims of homelessness are young children, who have no control over the decisions that put them there, and no power to change their circumstances.
The typical homeless family is headed by a young woman in her 20s with two children. Of all families, nearly half those kids are under age five.
The consequences of homelessness can be devastating and long-lasting for young children. By age 8, one in three homeless children has a mental health problem that affects their functioning, said Karen Hudson, a national expert on homeless children and a social worker with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
More than three-quarters of homeless children under age 5 have developmental delays. And nearly 40 percent exhibit emotional and behavioral problems, she said. These early problems can set the stage for problems, including homelessness, later in life. Surveys have noted that more than one-quarter of homeless adults experienced homelessness when they were young.
Children who lack stable housing face a host of challenges that stress their developing systems, including lack of sleep, hunger, fear and increased levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, which can wreak havoc on young brains.
Sleep deprivation or disruption can make a child look and behave as though they have severe behavioral problems such as oppositional defiant disorder, said Dr. Ben Danielson, medical director of the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic of Children’s Hospital and Medical Center in Seattle.
The symptoms that result from the stress of homelessness can include anxiety, depression, extreme withdrawal, poor concentration or various forms of “acting out,” such as tantrums.
“We see attachment disorders, big time,” said Danielson.
Serious mental problems can go untreated because they are difficult to diagnose.
“Depression can look a lot different in kids,” said Danielson. “A child might not say,
‘I’m depressed,’ but might have real problems sustaining relationships with friends and performing in school.”
Often the first sign of trouble is when the family’s life seems to be improving.
Jill Klenota supervises parent child services for Wellspring Family Services, a Seattle-based nonprofit that works with homeless families. She recently worked with a family where the child started shoplifting after the mom had gotten into housing.
Now that the child feels safer, she’s acting out. “She’s showing she’s still a troubled 8-year-old.”
Therapists at Wellspring and elsewhere emphasized working with the whole family as a way to help children get back on track. Helping parents see what’s keeping them from meeting their children’s needs, and how to change their own behavior is one step. They often need help understanding normal child behavior and development and practice with parenting skills.
Building confidence is critical.
Parents who are homeless are often demoralized and depressed, said Judy Burr-Chellin, director of Parent/Child Services for Wellspring. “But no matter what, they are still the most important person in their child’s life.”
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