The Effects of Homelessness on Children

Amanda Luzzader

What are the effects of homelessness on children?

As the affordable housing crisis continues, millions of families and their children are being subjected to housing uncertainty, and many will experience homelessness. According to a report issued by the U.S. White House Council of Economic Advisers, the number of Americans experiencing homelessness in 2019 stood at 552,830–about 0.2 percent of the population or roughly 17 in every 10,000 Americans.

An estimated 20 percent (one in five) of those experiencing homelessness in the United States are children. The National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) recently reported that on a single night in January 2020, “an estimated 171,575 people in families–or 55,739 family households–were identified as homeless,” and that, “Approximately 16,667 people in families were living on the street, in a car, or in another place not meant for human habitation.”

What are the effects of homelessness on children?

Negative effects on newborns, infants, and toddlersA 1999 report by the Family Housing Fund (FHF), a U.S. housing advocacy nonprofit organization, states that infants born into homelessness are at severe risk of health problems, developmental delays, and death. Not surprisingly, homeless mothers suffer from poor health themselves and often go without prenatal care. This leads to higher rates of low birth weight, infant death, and an array of other health effects. Babies born into homeless situations typically suffer from malnutrition, are not properly immunized and do not receive adequate health care. FHF reports that very young children in homeless situations exhibit “significant developmental delays” after only 18 months of homelessness, which may lead to behavioral, emotional, and physical problems that follow them into their childhood years and beyond.

Exposure to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)According to the Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health (ACAMH), homelessness should be considered an “adverse childhood experience” (abbreviated as ACEs). ACEs are a collection of traumatic experiences that have been identified for their potential to have dramatic and long-lasting negative effects on children. The currently accepted list of ACEs includes the following ten items:

  1. Physical abuse
  2. Sexual abuse
  3. Verbal abuse
  4. Physical neglect
  5. Emotional neglect
  6. Having a family member who is depressed or diagnosed with other mental illness
  7. Having a family member with substance-abuse problems
  8. Having a family member who is incarcerated
  9. Witnessing a mother being abused
  10. Losing a parent to separation, divorce, or death

The reason ACEs are such an important consideration when discussing children is that exposure to ACEs has been shown to lead to a wide variety of negative health effects, including physical illness (e.g., heart disease and cancer), mental illness (e.g., depression and anxiety), and certain serious social disadvantages (e.g., early pregnancy, familial instability, low income, and poor performance at school and in the workplace).

Although homelessness is not included in the list, the ACAMH argues that homelessness makes children so much more likely to experience ACEs that homelessness might better be classified as an ACE itself.

Substance-abuse problemsThe ACAMH also reports that children who experience homelessness are more likely than others to abuse substances such as drugs and alcohol. Their report said that 71 percent of homeless adolescents surveyed reported having abused substances. This could be an effect of location–homeless shelters and groups of people experiencing homelessness are often targeted by those who sell illicit drugs. Or it could simply be that young people suffering from the stress of being homeless utilize illicit substances as an escape or coping mechanism.

Sleep problemsACAMH’s report points out that, because the short-term solutions to homelessness often result in staying in less-than-ideal accommodations (e.g., staying in homeless shelters, staying with friends), sleep is often something young people miss out on while experiencing housing uncertainty and homelessness. Uncomfortable sleeping arrangements, sleeping in rooms with multiple occupants, and living “around” the erratic schedules of other people can leave children with less than adequate amounts of sleep for extended periods, which can affect short-term behavior, impair cognitive ability at school, and lead to lasting sleep disorders.

Overall impact and resilienceIt comes as no surprise that the NAEH reports that children who experience homelessness will suffer generally from the following effects:

-Higher levels of emotional and behavioral problems-Increased risk of serious health problems;-Increased likelihood to be separated from families-Greater chance of repeating grades levels, being expelled, dropping out, and lower academic performance

However, the NAEH reports that the news is not all bad. “Homelessness can have a tremendous impact on children–their education, health, sense of safety, and overall development. Fortunately, states NAEH, “researchers find that children are also highly resilient, and differences between children who have experienced homelessness and low-income children who have not typically diminish in the years following a homeless episode.”

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