When I met Trevon* at the therapeutic nursery at his family’s shelter in Baltimore, his teacher gave me a warning. “Be careful about getting close to him,” she said. “He gets scared around strangers.” This little boy, not yet two years old, had already been through significant trauma in his short life, which made him wary of his surroundings. His child care center was doing the best they could to help Trevon and his family return to a healthier, more stable lifestyle.
As the capstone to my graduate program at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, I’ve been working with the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to study how early childhood programs serve children and families experiencing homelessness.
After reading through grant proposals, I chose the Elkhart and St. Joseph Counties Head Start Consortium in Indiana; the Telamon Corporation in North Carolina, with a focus on the Raleigh area; and the Maryland Family Network, which includes child care centers throughout the state. Through interviews, document reviews, program data, and direct observation of Sarah’s Hope, Maryland Family Network’s new child care center in a Baltimore homeless shelter, I was able to gather some best practices and some of the challenges that these centers faced as they worked to serve families experiencing homelessness.
One common challenge interviewees noted was that families experiencing homelessness are very mobile, often only staying with a child care center for a few weeks at a time. This makes it difficult for care providers to gain trust or to achieve long-term goals with children and parents. Even when families move and do try to keep their child at the same center, centers often are not able to provide the free transportation the family needs to make this care accessible. Another major challenge in these cases was addressing the trauma families were facing. A few of the interviewees mentioned wary parents who at times lost their ability to act rationally or understand what was happening in their environment. At the Sarah’s Hope nursery, staff saw homeless infants and toddlers face separation anxiety, “blunted” play, and speech delays.
Grant recipients saw successes ranging from small, behavioral victories, to helping families obtain housing and financial stability. The most successful grant recipients also had the strongest child care partners, who were dedicated to the Early Head Start tenets and the success of those they served. Strong community partnerships and staff trained to work with families experiencing homelessness also made a significant difference in the number of families served and the quality of care.
Grant recipients in all three cases agreed that the more families experiencing homelessness that they were able to assist, the greater success. And yet, one of the administrators at the Maryland Family Network reminded me that their work was not finished: “We are only serving 3% of the eligible population nationwide,” she said. “We have a lot more to do.”
A student and a partner
One of my favorite quotes comes from an aboriginal activist: “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Not only did I learn about the challenges faced by families experiencing homelessness, but I was fortunate enough to speak with and meet their partners in liberation. I learned that policies and grants that support these families are important, but equally important was the early childhood provider who gained a child’s trust, the homeless shelter staff members who referred a family to Early Head Start, and the administrators who work tirelessly to expand their reach to needy families. As a public policy graduate, it was important for me to learn that it is people, partnerships, and communities that truly make policy changes happen. I hope as I graduate to become a partner in this work to provide Trevon and all children and their families the opportunities they deserve.
*Child’s name changed for privacy.
Lisa Berglund received her Masters in Public Policy from the University of Maryland in May 2017.