Head Start Collaboration Directors Talk about Homelessness: Introduction

Select the tabs above to listen to Head Start collaboration directors talk about various issues related to homelessness including:

  • Why it is important for Head Start staff to understand about the McKinney-Vento Act
  • Impact of homelessness on families
  • Why doubled-up families are considered homeless
  • Homelessness and infants

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Khari Garvin, North Carolina

Meet Khari: Watch the video [00:00:23] | Read the transcript

It's Khari Garvin, and I'm the director of the North Carolina Head Start State Collaboration Office, and the role primarily is to help grantees be successful with some of the work that they are called to do, but also to help build linkages—state-level linkages—and to represent Head Start on the state level in terms of being a voice for policy and that sort of thing.

Comments on the definition of homelessness: Watch the video [00:02:01] | Read the transcript

What we now know about homeless families and where they typically live, particularly based on the broad definition, we understand that homeless families live in, they actually, some do live in homes, they're doubled-up, they live with families or relatives in homes by virtue of losing their previous place of residence, so that's one place. Again, unfortunately, park benches and that sort of thing. Some live in their cars, some live in homeless shelters, some live in motels. Some live in trailer parks. And so, it's a wide variety of places.

Now, and in terms of, "Is there a stark contrast?" There certainly can be a stark contrast of what we used to believe about where homeless people lived. Some of that has to do again with this notion that someone is not living in any sort of shelter at all, but the definition actually is "families that lack a fixed, adequate, and regular nighttime residence," not just someone who doesn't live under a roof anywhere.

So I think it's very important, too, for us to remember that. And also, too, that the last thing that I think is a stark contrast is that, when we talk about homelessness, we're talking about, again, families that lack a fixed, adequate, and regular nighttime residence—doesn't say anything about whether they work or not, there are lots of homeless people who have jobs and that sort of thing, but they just lack a fixed, adequate, and regular nighttime residence.

Aspects of the McKinney-Vento Act that are important for Head Start staff to understand: Watch the video [00:00:59] | Read the transcript

There are three primary things that Head Start programs really need to understand with regard to the McKinney-Vento Law. First of all, I think grantees really need to understand the very broad definition of homelessness, because what probably comes to mind is folks who are probably living on a park bench or in a shelter, but it's much broader than that.

Secondly, I think it's important for grantees to understand the requirements that are associated with enrolling homeless families. That is, to serve homeless families immediately and worry about collecting paperwork later, and that is a little bit of a paradigm shift for us in Head Start.

And I think the third thing is for programs to understand that fundamentally, this new requirement and this new priority is not new for us in the sense that we have other categorical eligibility that's been on the books for years, children who receive public assistance or foster children, so we can sort of integrate this into what we've already been doing in the past.

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Grace Whitney, Connecticut

Meet Grace: Watch the video [00:00:07] | Read the transcript

My name is Grace Whitney, and I'm the director of the Head Start State Collaboration Office in the state of Connecticut, and I've been in that position for about twelve years.

Comments on the definition of homelessness: Watch the video [00:00:36] | Read the transcript

...Perhaps the idea that all of the families that are homeless are really reflected in the shelter populations, but certainly the Head Start programs themselves are well aware that there are families that are moving constantly because of changes in their own family economies.

And so it's really the doubled-up and families staying with friends and family that are a challenge, because we like to know that children are consistent in their programs, but that's not always possible when families need to move from friend to friend or from family to family on a regular basis.

Why doubled-up families are considered homeless: Watch the video [00:00:32] | Read the transcript

Doubled-up families are families who are—who lose their housing and then move in with friends and family in their homes and apartments. And, that's not a stable environment for them, that's not their home, and they're certainly at risk for having to move again because typically those are crowded situations and families may go from one doubled-up situation to another, and to many doubled-up situations over a period of time, over a period of six months to a year.

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Mary Vanderwert, Minnesota

Meet Mary: Watch the video [00:00:06] | Read the transcript

My name is Mary Vanderwert and I'm the director of the Head Start Collaboration Office in Minnesota.

How homelessness affects health and nutrition: Watch the video [00:02:42] | Read the transcript

Homelessness has a huge impact on children. I think one of the main ways is in health because when children are homeless, they're typically living in less-than-ideal conditions, they may be living with lots of other people, some of them strangers, with no way of knowing really which kinds of germs, if you will, but what kinds of dangers there are in terms of exposure to illness and disease.

And so, we know that children who are homeless have twice as many ear infections, they have twice as many respiratory infections as children who are housed. If they have asthma, they are three times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than other children. They have four times more skin disorders, they have twice as many chronic and physical problems with their eyes, ears, and teeth, and they are 35 times more likely to have gastrointestinal disorders. 35 times more.

This was brought home to me one night in one of the homeless shelters that I volunteer at when an eight-year-old needed to have new pants, uniform pants, to go to school because he'd had an accident that day -- he'd had diarrhea and we all needed to scramble to get him new pants for the next day. So it became real; it's not just a theory.

One of the other things about being homeless is that families don't have access to good nutrition. They don't have refrigeration in most cases, they don't have stoves, so they can't cook the food that their family is used to. They also have no control over the sanitation of the food that they are receiving, and so those children, in terms of nutrition, are six times more likely to have stunted growth, they have more iron deficiencies and higher lead levels than children whose parents can control their nutrition. So, the impact is great.

They also have less access to preventative health care and ongoing health care, so children who live in families that are homeless use emergency rooms instead of ongoing care at a clinic, and so they really use the emergency room much more than anything else.

Homelessness and the effect of stress: Watch the video [00:02:30] | Read the transcript

There are so many impacts on young children that aren't seen. They are traumatized by being homeless. They experience change. Many homeless families average three moves a year, and so they're changing residence all the time. Some families in my county in Minnesota, families who are without homes stay in a day shelter during the day, they go to churches in the evening to sleep, and then when openings come up in the residential shelter, their family goes to the residential shelter and can stay there for thirty days. And once those thirty days are up, they're back into the day shelter if they haven't already found homes. So those children are moving all the time, and imagine not knowing where you're going to sleep that night and experiencing that change all the time—they're stressed.

They also worry about their parents because their parents are stressed, and young children are emotion magnets. They pick up the emotions of the parents, of the people around them—the adults around—they're always scanning their environment. And if their parents are stressed, they want to know why, and they want to help them because they are sensitive beings.

The other thing about many homeless children is that they have experienced violence in their life prior to becoming homeless, or they have witnessed violence even within their homeless community, so they fear for their own safety, and they fear for the safety of their parents and their siblings.

So they live with lots of stress, and what we know about young children and stress is that prolonged and toxic stress, the kind of deep stress that these children have, actually affects their brain development at a time when it is most critical that they be in environments that are stimulating and supporting that good development. It actually affects how their brains work for the rest of their lives at this point because of the critical nature of that period of development.

More about homelessness and the effect of stress: Watch the video [00:02:16] | Read the transcript

I work in this homeless shelter in the evenings, and remember an evening where about eleven children under the age of five came in, and within minutes, every toy in the basement was thrown, and tossed about, and those children were really stressed. They were unable really to interact with any of the toys and the materials that we had there.

They couldn't really interact with each other to sort of negotiate how to use those materials, how to solve problems, how to sort of develop relationships. Their parents were exhausted from a day of caring for them and taking care of business, so they weren't engaged. Those kids really needed someone to help them process this, to help them sort of settle their bodies and be able to rest, and do the things that young children need to do in terms of their development.

So again, that's another real challenge for young children who are homeless. And it plays out in delays in their development. Their delays are four times the rate of children who are housed or are in really healthy environments. They have three times the rate of emotional and behavior problems, and twice the rate of learning disabilities and speech delays. It impacts their lives forever.

Homelessness and infants: Watch the video [00:01:13] | Read the transcript

Infants who are homeless are at tremendous risk if they are homeless. I have known parents who have delivered babies and have brought them home to shelters, and that creates problems in bathing those babies, in making sure that they have formula and the right kind of refrigeration for either the formula or breast milk. Many of them are born to mothers who had no prenatal care, and so lots of children—infants, newborns in homelessness—have a low birth weight.

When you have a low birth weight and you have had no prenatal care, those children are really at risk for dying within their first year. It's a very dangerous situation for them. Besides, many of them lack immunizations because they don't have access to health care, and they're exposed to all kinds of environmental factors, like health and disease, and the stress of their parents, and again, that lack of sanitation and control over their nutrition.

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Mary Lynne Diggs, South Carolina

Meet Mary Lynne: Watch the video [00:00:06] | Read the transcript

I'm Mary Lynne Diggs with the South Carolina Head Start Collaboration Office. I've been their director for sixteen years!

Comments on the definition of homelessness: Watch the video [00:00:30] | Read the transcript

Homelessness doesn't necessarily mean that you live in a box, that you live under a bridge, or that you live in a car. If you don't have a stable, identified nighttime residence, you are homeless. We recognize in very recent publications that the incidence of families moving in with other families is up. The 2000 census said that three million households were shared households with other families, but the 2007 census tells us that 6.7 million families now co-locate.

And in South Carolina in particular, we find that twelve percent of our children under age six live with their grandparents because their parents do not have a stable nighttime home, or their parents are not present, so those children are homeless children.

McKinney-Vento as a partner for Head Start: Watch the video [00:00:57] | Read the transcript

The McKinney-Vento Act is highlighted—and we've counted possibly thirteen times—in the 2007 School Readiness Act for Head Start, but McKinney-Vento was in the previous two Head Start Acts as an emphasis, as a partner. We encourage Head Start staff to know that McKinney-Vento is a partner, and that McKinney-Vento provides the opportunity and the options for families who seek to stabilize their lives.

As we move into a new era of a stronger emphasis on the McKinney-Vento, we're looking at the recruitment—that's not really new, but now it is an expectation—of Head Start programs to recruit and maintain information on homeless children. But, Head Start staff members are always reminded and need to always know that McKinney-Vento describes opportunities for children.

Impact of homelessness on families: Watch the video [00:00:33] | Read the transcript

In early childhood, and in early childhood policy, which is a strong piece of Head Start collaboration offices, we are always reminded about the tie between Maslow's theory and children. And homelessness is a part of that, because quite often homelessness interrupts a child's opportunity for safety, for security, for love, for affection, for self-esteem, for general esteem, and for the caring, and basics like food and water.

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Last Reviewed: July 2014

Last Updated: January 6, 2017