Lesson 5: Partnering with Families


Building positive and respectful relationships with families is critical when supporting families who are experiencing homelessness. In this lesson, you will:

  • Evaluate how to work with families experiencing homelessness;
  • Reflect on the current strategies you use when partnering with families in homeless situations; and
  • Modify your current strategies as necessary to ensure that they are supportive of families experiencing homelessness.

Marco Beltran, Family and Community Partnerships Specialist at the Office of Head Start, and Christina Murphy, Director of the Campaign to End Homelessness at The National Center on Family Homelessness, discuss partnering with families who are experiencing homelessness.

Watch the video [00:05:56] | Read the transcript

Marco and Christina Discuss Partnering with Families

Hello, my name is Marco Beltran. I have worked with Head Start over 15 years and in 2010, joined the Office of Head Start as a Family and Community Partnerships Specialist. But my experience with Head Start goes way back.

As a child I was enrolled in a Migrant Head Start Program in Tracy, California because my family were agricultural farm workers and highly mobile. We lived in crowded housing situations that were not stable and we would move from place to place depending on planned, but more often unplanned, situations such as raids on the Migrant camps or unsafe environments. The safest and most consistent place for me was the Head Start center and the schools for my siblings who were too young to work. Unfortunately when there was no access to schools or Head Start centers, we ended up in the fields.

Given my extensive background in family and community partnerships and experiencing Head Start as a child in Migrant Head Start program, I understand the importance of working with programs to establish comprehensive services for Head Start and Early Head Start children and families.

Despite Head Start’s supportive efforts, some Head Start families experience crises. Crises erupt whenever families find themselves unable to resolve a stressful situation or event. When families are experiencing homelessness, they are indeed operating in a crisis mode. The role of Head Start staff is to recognize and assess the crisis situation, listen and provide assurance, as well as support the family’s access to specialized resources in the broader community. So, it is important to know what is happening to families as it usually affects their problem-solving skills and impacts their ability to respond effectively to their situation.

Doctors Howard and Libbie Parad, editors of The Practitioners Sourcebook for Brief Therapy describe the anxiety-ridden responses of people in crisis such as:

  • Bewilderment - From experiencing new and unusual feelings;
  • Danger - From feelings of tension;
  • Confusion - From feeling that the mind is muddled and not working well;
  • Impasse - From feeling stuck or nothing works;
  • Desperation - From the need to do something;
  • Apathy - Thus questioning why try;
  • Helplessness - From the feeling of the need to someone to help;
  • Urgency - From the need for help right now; and

The crisis support role of staff varies from family to family depending upon many factors. Some important considerations, which you can also find in the Training Guides for the Head Start Learning Community: Supporting Families in Crisis, include:

  • The nature of the crisis - As we are focused on families in homeless situations you will acutely be aware of the nature of the crisis
  • Family and staff safety - Because there are varied reasons why a family may be experiencing homelessness; safety of family, staff and community must be considered
  • The strength of the current staff-family relationship - When families are experiencing a crisis they are likely to be most open to support from staff with whom they are building a relationship.
  • Staff availability - Families may require a significant number of staff hours each week
  • The availability of specialized crisis intervention programs - This is an important consideration. Building community partnerships that are specifically focused on homelessness is crucial; and
  • Local Program Policy - In line with community partnerships, local programs may have interagency agreements or protocols that spell out

As you will hear in this lesson, Head Start staff Kim Garcia and Dora McKean talk about how they supported Yvonne Andersen and Sara Villavicencio during their experiences with homelessness.

But first, I invite you to listen to Christina Murphy, Director of the Campaign to End Child Homelessness at The National Center on Family Homelessness as she talks about why families become homeless and the trauma families in homeless situations experience.

Homelessness is a devastating experience that significantly impacts the health and well-being of adults and children. In the United States, one in every 50 American children experience homelessness—that is approximately 1.5 million children and their families each year.

Families can become homeless for many reasons, including a lack of affordable housing, unemployment, limited access to resources and supports, health and mental health issues, and experiences of violence. The process of becoming homeless involves the loss of belongings, community, and sense of safety. Homelessness increases the likelihood that families will separate or dissolve, which may compound the stress the family feels.

Families experiencing homelessness are under considerable stress. They move frequently, and many are doubled-up in overcrowded apartments with relatives or friends. Others sleep in cars and campgrounds or send their children to stay with relatives to avoid shelter life.

Once in shelter, families must quickly adjust to overcrowded, difficult, and uncomfortable circumstances. Despite the efforts of dedicated staff, many shelters are noisy, chaotic, and lack privacy. Living in shelters is isolating and can lead to a loss of personal control.

Why This Lesson is Important

When a family is in the throes of experiencing a crisis, their problem-solving strategies may not be as clear cut. As a result the family may feel anxious, vulnerable or overwhelmed.

Staff may not know when a family is experiencing a crisis such as homelessness. It is important to create a program environment that continually promotes compassion, support, mutual trust and respect so that families feel staff are available to support them during their time of crisis.

The Head Start Program Performance Standards state that:
Grantee and delegate agencies must engage in a process of collaborative partnership-building with parents to establish mutual trust and to identify family goals, strengths, and necessary services and other supports…

Grantee and delegate agencies must work collaboratively with all participating parents to identify and continually access, either directly or through referrals, services and resources that are responsive to each family's interests and goals, including:

Emergency or crisis assistance in areas such as food, housing, clothing and transportation

This lesson provides ideas and strategies that support positive relationship-building with families.

Lesson Guidelines

From the Partnering with Families tab in the navigation bar at the top, select a story from the drop-down list. Use the tabs to move around as you wish. You may find it helpful to follow these steps:

  1. Watch the videos of the parent stories and think about how you might partner with this parent. Listen for strategies that helped her. (Hear the Story tab)
  2. Explore the information provided and think about whether you might want to use the strategies as you partner with families. (Explore Information tab)
  3. Watch the videos of the home-based educator and the family advocate and think about the strategies they used in working with the families. (Record Your Ideas tab)
  4. Discuss the information you find in this lesson with your supervisor, colleagues, or your homeless liaison.
  5. Keep a record of strategies you might find useful in partnering with families in homeless situations. (Record Your Ideas tab)
  6. Review the main points of this lesson.

Last Updated: January 6, 2017