Lesson 3: Identification and Outreach


The purpose of this lesson on Identification and Outreach is to:

  • Develop a plan for identifying children who may be experiencing homelessness; and
  • Develop outreach materials to raise awareness about Head Start involvement with children and families in homeless situations.

Sherri Watkins, Family and Health Service Specialist for Bright Beginnings Inc., a child and family development center for children and families experiencing homelessness in Washington, D.C., discusses identification and outreach.

Watch the video [00:07:14] | Read the transcript

Sherri Watkins discusses Identification & Outreach

Throughout the years I have worked in low income communities where real crisis situations occur due to the lack of basic necessities. My strength in the area of outreach has awarded me accolades and recognition in Washington, D.C. that I deserve no credit for -- as it is the bravery of children and families in these failing communities that deserve the most attention. For this reason, I am excited to talk about this lesson on Identification and Outreach.

Since its birth in 1965, Head Start has been a leading early childhood education program across the country. The Lyndon Johnson administration opened the door to children in low-income communities who qualify for Head Start services. Not only did the administration start a crusade for low-income families, but it was found that many of them were actually in homeless situations.

The Head Start program gained the immediate attention of local community organizations and partners across the nation who embraced the idea of Head Start into their communities. Now today, families experiencing homelessness are learning about the Head Start program through those same local community organizations and partners. Families experiencing homelessness trust information given to them by those who they are most comfortable with because of the existing relationship they have. So if community organizations remain trustworthy, homeless families will continue to learn more about the Head Start program and the Head Start program will then continue to gain the trust of families experiencing homelessness.

Because we now know that homeless families operate on trust factors, Head Start programs can maximize their recruitment and identification effort by becoming active partners with local community organizations and programs who already support families in homeless situations. There is no need to re-invent the wheel when there are neighborhood programs present that already have access to the families who may be experiencing homelessness. So, visit that local community organization next door and ask about outreach and collaboration opportunities. See how the work we do in Head Start can benefit their program and in turn they may offer some benefits as well. I say to my son all the time in relation to school: "if you miss a day, you miss a lot." And if we miss a day in the field of outreach, we can miss an opportunity to reach families who are experiencing homelessness.

In order to identify homeless children and families:

  • You must be present in your community;
  • You must go where homeless families are; and
  • You must continue to spread the word about how Head Start benefits homeless families.

Homelessness is real. Families are finding themselves homeless overnight for many reasons that are often beyond their control. As Head Start outreach professionals, we have to know where new homeless families go when they are ready to seek support.

Some of the places are:

  • Homes of family members and friends;
  • Community Resource Centers;
  • Family shelters and transitional programs;
  • Houses where children are split among relatives such as grandmothers, uncles, and aunts until housing for the entire family becomes available; and
  • The last result for many families -- leaving town-- which is how sister Head Start programs across the nation end up serving the same homeless family.

Good identification and outreach practices involve:

  • Knowing your community;
  • Knowing what your community looks like, where families reside;
  • Knowing where families shop;
  • Knowing where emergency assistant programs are, where food stamp offices are; and
  • Most importantly, knowing where clinics and hospitals are who serve families.

Although some families are new to homelessness they still have to eat, find shelter, and seek medical attention. The scary part about identification and outreach is that the face of homelessness has changed. No longer are we able to associate dirty clothing and a knapsack with homelessness. You just have to be where families are and conduct outreach as if everyone qualifies for the service. Making outreach universal and not selective will give your Head Start program a better identification outcome.

You never appreciate how much comfort a home can give until you lose it, and that is how families feel within Head Start who lose their housing and experience homelessness. Head Start professionals are able to identify these families experiencing homelessness through effective case management and family service workers in Head Start programs who manage case loads and know immediately when a family becomes homeless.

If a family is at risk of being homeless, the family service worker should be able to identify resources for the family to alleviate a homeless situation; however, many times situations such as homelessness happen rapidly and the resources that we wish were available are not. family service workers should have experience in identifying warning signs that spell out homelessness. Overall, the family’s living situation will expose itself as the family’s attendance, finances, and stress levels start to change. Furthermore, the Head Start program must have a relationship with the family and know when a particular family is in danger of losing their housing.

As you seek to find homeless families in your communities, much support is needed from local liaisons and the Head Start program as a whole.

  • Be a recruiter and make your Head Start program attractive.
  • Seek support with outreach by gathering staff to help you present information.
  • Bring a family service worker in the field with you to recruit and allow other Head Start professionals to share strategies.
  • Most importantly, work as hard as YOU can to identity families who need Head Start the most.

Identification and outreach are tall orders and require planning. This lesson will help you get started. We invite you to explore the information in this lesson and begin your planning process.

Why This Lesson is Important

Identification and outreach are important for several reasons:

  • The Head Start Act requires Head Start programs to identify children and families who are experiencing homelessness, and remove barriers to their enrollment and participation in Head Start. In addition, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires child-find activities specifically targeted to ensure that all homeless children and youth with disabilities are identified and served. (20 U.S.C. §1401(3)(A); 20 U.S.C. §§1434(1) and 1435(a)(2)).
  • Homeless children and families receive services not only through Head Start, but also through the McKinney-Vento Act, Title I, IDEA, Child Nutrition, and other programs. To ensure our children receive appropriate services, we must identify them as eligible.
  • The circumstances of homelessness vary, and programs must understand the most effective ways to find and enroll homeless children. We cannot serve children and families if we don’t know who they are. For example, migrant families who are homeless may be temporarily staying in camps or under bridges. In communities where there are no shelters, families may be staying with family or friends. Urban communities may have some shelters available to homeless families, but those shelters may be full or families may be ineligible to stay there. In some communities, faith-based organizations have taken a lead role in providing temporary shelter to homeless families. For each of these communities, outreach efforts and recruitment practices may need to be different. They must be diverse and incorporate visiting locations that are not familiar to your program.

Throughout this lesson you will be encouraged to build an identification and outreach plan that is customized to meet the needs of your community.

Lesson Guidelines

From the ID and Outreach lesson on the navigation bar at the top, select an idea from the drop-down list. Use the tabs to move around as you wish. You may find it helpful to follow these steps:

  1. Listen to the video clips and gather ideas you might want to include in your plan for identification and outreach (Review Ideas tab).
  2. Review the information and ideas that other programs are using (Explore Information tab).
  3. Use the worksheet provided or a journal to record all your ideas for your identification and outreach plan into one document. You will use the same document several times during this lesson (Prepare Your Plan tab).
  4. Review the main points of this lesson.

Last Updated: January 6, 2017