The experience of homelessness inhibits the physical, emotional, cognitive, social, and behavioral development of children.
By the time homeless children reach school age, their homelessness affects their social, physical, and academic lives. Homeless children are not simply at risk; most suffer specific physical, psychological, and emotional damage due to the circumstances that accompany episodes of homelessness.
In general, homeless children consistently exhibit more health problems than housed poor children. Environmental factors contribute to homeless children’s poor health, and homeless children are at high risk for infectious disease. Homeless children are at greater risk for asthma and lead poisoning, often with more severe symptoms than housed children. Poor nutrition also contributes to homeless children’s poor health, causing increased rates of stunted growth and anemia.
Despite these widespread health problems, homeless children generally lack access to consistent health care, and this lack of care can increase severity of illness.
Emotional and Behavioral Development
Homeless children are confronted with stressful and traumatic events that they often are too young to understand, leading to severe emotional distress. Homeless children experience stress through constant changes, which accumulate with time. These stressful changes result in a higher incidence of mental disorders, which become manifested in homeless children’s behavior. Despite significantly more incidences of mental illness, less than one-third of these children receive professional help.
Homeless children’s academic performance is hampered both by their poor cognitive development and by the circumstances of their homelessness, such as constant mobility. Homeless children are more likely to score poorly on math, reading, spelling, and vocabulary tests and are more likely to be held back a year in school. As with physical and mental health care, homeless children’s greater needs do not lead to greater access to special services.
There Is Good News
While research on homeless children paints an overwhelmingly bleak picture of their current and future status, there is hope that with early and consistent intervention strategies, children can learn to overcome many of the detrimental effects of their poverty and homeless experiences. SHIP ourselves are working to intervene with programs such as New Horizons Frederick, a counseling and mentoring program providing area homeless high school students with direct access to existing community services.