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What to Know About Homeless Children and Health

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on May 03, 2022

The McKinney-Vento Act that was signed into law in 1987 defines homelessness as a situation where individuals don’t have access to a consistent and adequate roof over their heads. In the case of homeless kids, it also includes scenarios where:

  • Children who live in shared homes no longer have access to such homes
  • Homeless youth have to share spaces with others or have to live in camping grounds, motels, trailer parks, or hotels due to a dearth of other choices
  • Children have to use public or private spaces that are not originally intended as places for human beings to stay. Examples include abandoned buildings, bus or train stations, cars, and parks.

Research shows that in the U.S. alone, more than 1.2 million children under the age of six experience homelessness every year.

What Are the Causes of Homelessness?

Reasons for homelessness range widely. They include natural disasters such as storms and hurricanes, fallout from domestic violence, and unemployment leading to financial difficulty and poverty.

What Trauma Do Homeless Children Go Through?

Children who are homeless feel a loss of community, privacy, and security. They may undergo feelings of insecurity as they have very few personal belongings. Families living in temporary shelters are uncertain about having a roof over their heads along with the constant need to build a home for themselves without the means to do so.

Additional challenges exist for homeless children who may be exposed to physical as well as sexual assault or who encounter other potentially scarring violent incidents. Repeated exposure to such situations adds to the stress of homelessness that these children already face and can delay recovery from trauma.

A few important things to keep in mind about the mental and physical health of homeless children are:

  • Homeless children are twice as likely to go hungry compared with their peers who have stable homes.
  • A fifth of pre-school-age homeless kids face grave emotional challenges that may need professional attention. Only a third of these children actually get the help they need.
  • Almost 50% of all homeless kids go through emotional challenges such as anxiety and depression.
  • Before they reach the age of eight, around a third of homeless kids develop serious mental conditions.
  • The frequency of homeless kids who repeat grades is twice that of other kids.
  • Homeless children are two times as likely to fall sick as other children. They also are more likely to report other health issues and infections – two times the normal rate of ear infections, four times the rate of asthma, and five times the rate of diarrhea and similar stomach-related conditions.

Signs of Homeless Children

While there may be differences in what each child experiences when they are homeless, there are some typical warning signals:

Ill health and nutritional challenges. Many young homeless individuals experience chronic hunger that may lead to fatigue. There may be cases of skin rashes and respiratory problems. It may also be a challenge to find medical records for such children. As a result they may be unable to access timely medical and dental help.

Absence of hygiene. Homeless children may also face health problems due to a lack of access to everyday amenities such as showers and fresh clothes that deny them basic hygiene.

The child's behavior. Being homeless can bring about changes in a child’s behavior such as reduced self-esteem, shyness, and anxiety, and have a telling effect on how they interact with their peers. In some cases, it could trigger uncalled-for aggression and a general distrust of people. Behavior challenges impact children’s social interactions. Fear of neglect can lead to a reluctance to build relationships with others.

The behavior of parents and guardians. In addition to the child’s behavior, you can also gauge the situation by understanding the behavior of their parents. Parents of homeless children can be embarrassed when asked about where they live or even completely avoid these questions. Some common statements that parents of homeless kids may make include: 

  • “I can’t recollect the name of the previous school.”
  • “We’re living in a new place, that’s why I can’t remember our address.”
  • “We’re living with relatives till we get used to this place.”
  • “We’re experiencing a tough time right now.”

Disrupted education. Young children who are homeless often have disruptions in their academics, including repeated absences from school and a lack of participation in school activities. Teachers may find it difficult to contact the child’s parents.

The academic growth of homeless children can be further affected by their inability to make regular payments towards school fees, keep up with homework assignments, and complete school projects on time. This may stem from the lack of a personal space to perform tasks.

How to Help Homeless Children

Having a roof over your head is considered one of the basic necessities of life and enduring homelessness early on in life can lead to a less-than-ideal childhood. Organizations are working to provide access to essential services that reduce the damaging effects of homelessness. Such services include:

  • Treatment for alcohol and drug-related issues along with programs that reinforce continued sobriety may be especially helpful for pregnant women
  • Academic programs that offer support for students outside regular school hours
  • Nutritional programs that provide food and essential nutrients for healthy growth and development
  • Access to prenatal care for pregnant women, including information about available benefits and the positive outcomes of those benefits
  • Information for new mothers about the nutritional requirements of their children. This is especially important for mothers of children born with health conditions.
  • Regular screening and immunization drives for homeless kids
  • Making sure that homeless children getting into preschool are ready to learn
  • Opportunities targeted to help homeless children participate in recreational and extracurricular activities
  • Providing the necessary support to parents to make sure that their children receive proper education and regular monitoring of educational progress.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center: “Caring for the Health and Wellness of Children Experiencing Homelessness.”

National Center for Homeless Education: “Common Signs of Homelessness,” “The Educational Rights of Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness: What Service Providers Need to Know.”

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network: “Facts on Trauma and Homeless Children.”

Supportive Housing Network of New York: “Homelessness and its Effects on Children.”

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