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Homeless Experiences of Parents Have a Lasting Impact on Children

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In December 2013, the New York Times ran a five-part series on family homelessness. This series, entitled “Invisible Child,” profiled Dasani, an 11-year-old girl living in a homeless shelter in Brooklyn, New York, with her parents and siblings. It describes her struggles with hunger, crowded living conditions, constant fears of family separation, difficulties with school, and her desire to fit in with her peers. It also demonstrates the impact of intergenerational trauma and poverty, as the reader learns about the continual struggles that her parents face.

Dasani is one of an estimated 1.6 million children that will experience homelessness in America each year.

The National Center on Family Homelessness estimates approximately 1.6 million children, or 1 in 45 children in America, experience homelessness each year. According to America's Youngest Outcasts: A Report Card on Child Homelessness - 2014 (PDF | 7.2 MB), this number is likely undercounted.

Using the definition of homelessness provided by McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the Board of Education reported that in the school year 2011-2012, there were 1,168,354 students experiencing homelessness. The Education for Homeless Children and Youths Program Data Collection Summary - 2012 (PDF | 974 KB) found that this represents a 10% increase over the previous year and a 24% increase over three years.

Risk Factors of Parents Experiencing Homelessness

Children experience homelessness for a variety of complex reasons. The experiences leading up to homelessness, as well as homelessness itself, have a lasting impact on children. Dasani’s story demonstrates how children are impacted by the experiences of their parents.

According to the SHIFT Study: Final Report (PDF | 1.5 MB), 93% of mothers experiencing homelessness have a history of trauma. Studies have cited other experiences of mothers who experience homelessness, which include the following:

  • Traumatic stress
  • Childhood abuse and neglect
  • Interpersonal violence
  • Mental health issues, especially depression
  • Substance use issues
  • Homelessness

These experiences impact a mother’s ability to parent and provide stability in the lives of her children. Dasani’s story shows the tremendous stress that accompanies the loss of one’s home and feelings of safety. Children experiencing homelessness frequently need to worry about where they will live, their pets, their belongings, and other family members.

Studies found that children experiencing homelessness also frequently face the following:

  • Hunger
  • Poor physical and behavioral health outcomes
  • Missed educational opportunities
  • Instability at home and in school
  • Family separation
  • Violence

Shelter Programs Focus on Childhood Development

Childhood is a crucial time for brain development and disruptions can have lasting impacts. Some shelters have initiated programs for children experiencing homelessness, including:

  • Physical and Emotional Awareness for Children who are Homeless (PEACH): PEACH is an initiative of The National Center on Family Homelessness that “teaches children and their parents about good nutrition, physical activity, and how to deal with the stress of being homeless." It is based on the award-winning OrganWise Guys and uses fun and interactive characters to engage children. PEACH is divided into 16 45-minute sessions, which follow a consistent format and generally include a story about physical or emotional health, a learning activity, physical activity, and a healthy snack. The sessions are engaging enough for children who can attend all of the sessions, but flexible enough to allow for high turnover of families in shelters. For more information, visit National Center on Family Homelessness.
  • Children’s Clinical Services Program in Sheffield Place, Kansas City, MO: This program seeks to empower children to heal from their trauma. Program staff members work with children through education, self-discovery, and family support. Services are provided in the form of developmental support, counseling, and family activities, as well as music, art, and animal-assisted therapy. The program also offers Parent-Child Interaction Therapy, which supports mothers as they learn skills for managing their children’s behavior. For more information, visit Sheffield Place.
  • Horizons for Homeless Children: Horizons for Homeless Children offers playspaces in homeless shelters that are located in Massachusetts. The Playspace Program is “based on the belief that play is essential for child development.” Horizons builds age- and developmentally-appropriate playspaces in shelters and fills them with books, developmental toys, and art supplies. Playspaces are staffed by trained volunteers. For more information, visit Horizons for Homeless Children.

This article was published to highlight the theme of Children and Families. Learn how SAMSHA's efforts supports women, children, and families.

Access more behavioral health and homelessness resources.

Last Updated

Last Updated: 10/19/2021