Definitions of homelessness. One issue frequently raised by Roundtable participants was the differing definitions of homelessness for families and children used by Federal agencies, particularly those used by HUD and the U.S. Department of Education (ED). Differing definitions can impact the ability to coordinate services (where eligibility varies with differing definitions) and to understand the true extent of the problem (i.e., how many children are homeless). One participant suggested that homelessness be viewed on a continuum as it is in Europe, which includes in its definition those who are precariously housed, doubled-up, in shelter and “sleeping in the rough.” Services could then be provided based on what is needed along this continuum.
Data and information. Having accurate data is critical. While HUD’s Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) was acknowledged as being very helpful, the need to monitor the quality of what was submitted was stressed. State and local education agencies (SEAs and LEAs) also play important roles in collecting information about children who are homeless, particularly those enrolled in school.
Among mainstream programs, little is known about the services people who are homeless receive because questions about housing status typically are not asked. For example, there is very little information about pre-school children who are homeless.
Another issue raised was the collection of information about victims of domestic violence. Better data would improve understanding of the problem as well as how to best intervene, but data collection with this population has been hampered by concerns about privacy and safety.
Prevention/intervention. There are numerous Federal, state and local programs that intervene to prevent and end homelessness among persons of all ages, including children and youth. Appendix C provides an overview of Federal programs that assist children who experience homelessness. With some exceptions, notably Head Start, most of these programs focus on school-age children.
Head Start can assess pre-school children for developmental disabilities and provide other services needed by homeless children and families. However, homeless children are underrepresented in Head Start for a variety of reasons, including program capacity issues and family mobility. Due to the episodic nature of homelessness, homeless children who enroll in Head Start often do not remain enrolled. The question of how to identify and serve children under the age of five was raised as an important and neglected area of focus.
Schools can play a key role in identifying and assisting school age children experiencing homelessness by providing structure and stability. Through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch and National School Breakfast programs, schools can also address food insecurity. Finally, schools can use McKinney-Vento funding to provide vouchers for glasses, clothes, and hygiene items. Participants reminded one another several times of the importance that even one supportive individual can make in the life of a child experiencing trauma of any sort.
Understanding the pathways into homelessness, including domestic violence, was stressed when planning intervention and prevention strategies. Many who are in shelter are young mothers with very young children, have poor academic achievement, have served in the military, and/or have been involved with the juvenile and/or criminal justice system.
Mainstream programs were also discussed with a focus on identifying families that are homeless, as well as ensuring that those leaving mainstream programs do not become homeless. Increasing points of access, such as food banks, clinics, and hospitals, was recommended as a way to increase identification, assessment and service provision for homeless families.
Participants identified housing subsidies and other housing-related strategies, such as rapid re-housing, as important interventions for homeless families that can ameliorate many of the negative effects of homelessness on children.
Research. It was noted that research is frequently a long-term process, taking from five to 10 years to plan, conduct, analyze, and disseminate. Discussion revolved around critical areas of need for further research. Several areas were identified:
- Poverty and resilience
- Subgroups of homeless children, including “doubled-up”, children not in shelter, those in foster care
- Rural homelessness
- Pathways to homelessness
- Mobility issues in homeless children
- Food insecurity and its impact
- Homelessness in children due to economic downturn
- Evaluation of interventions
Several areas of potential funding were discussed, including the National Institutes of Health, especially investigator-initiated research and USICH. Attendees also suggested that better instruments need to be developed to adequately capture the heterogeneity in homeless children. Current measures are often not culturally competent or validated. The need for longitudinal studies was stressed, especially in light of the episodic nature of homelessness in families and children.