Friday, May. 24th 2019

Best practices: Upcoming Region 9 HSA round table to look at how to better serve families experiencing homelessness

By Edward Condon, Executive Director, Region 9 Head Start Association

Recovery from the Great Recession has been uneven for minorities and families at-risk. Moreover, as the economy improved and businesses expanded, the cost of housing rebounded. Across Region 9, home prices have soared and as well as rents—in cities, the suburbs and even in rural and isolated communities.

In fact, even in America’s richest cities, the homeless crisis is getting worse, according to Bloomberg Businessweek: “A toxic combination of slow wage growth and skyrocketing rents has put housing out of reach for a greater number of people,” say writers By Noah Buhayar and Esmé E. Deprez, further noting that “at least 10 cities on the West Coast have declared states of emergency in recent years. San Diego and Tacoma, Wash., recently responded by erecting tents fit for disaster relief areas to provide shelter for their homeless.”

Here are some specifics regionally: In Sacramento, the biennial point-in-time count conducted in 2017 found that 95 percent of homeless families live in shelters or in transitional housing, where they comprise over a third of all homeless that use shelters

Out in Elko, Nev., Head Start officials reporting on housing conditions noted that an uptick in construction has increased rental rates, gentrification of neighborhoods and an influx of out-of-state home buyers. The local job market is expanding but most jobs don’t pay a living wage.

Meanwhile, in Arizona, the Early Head Start and Head Start agencies reporting on their enrolled families found that 22.4 percent of toddlers and nearly 14 percent of pre-schoolers, respectively, were experiencing housing issues.

Overall, across the nation, according to federal data, 1.2 million children under 6 years old experience homelessness every year.

Homelessness is a circumstance that families may experience when they are faced with such challenges as extreme poverty and lack of affordable housing. It can also occur when a family’s current living situation becomes unsafe or unstable, notes the Office of Head Start. It is a vulnerable state that exposes children and families to physical, mental, and developmental risks.

Families experiencing homeless—no matter what the kind—are frequently embarrassed about the situation and often don’t let on to others what’s happening. This further impacts how they go about seeking help.

They also may not have what they need to apply for and participate in programs for their young children, so homelessness can create barriers both to enrolling in early childhood and school-age child care program.

So pervasive and intractable an issue that homeless has become, this year, OHS Director Dr. Deborah Bergeron focus heightened attention on the subject. The national office has created an eight-module learning series Supporting Children and Families Experiencing Homelessness for site directors, teachers and others to come to a better understanding of the nature of homelessness and its effect on pre-schoolers and families.

Because of Head Start’s holistic providing services to families in the way of education, mental and physical health, the program is very well suited for serving families experiencing homelessness. Head Start and Early Head Start programs can provide young children experiencing homelessness with stability, support, and enriching experiences that promote healthy development. Yet, ironically, Head Start officials note that currently the programs are not reaching many families who are experiencing homelessness or unstable housing.

I believe these facts and agencies’ experience are telling us that we need to look more closely at how we interact with families who have unstable housing. The OHS wants agencies to be more flexible—to be sure that a family’s housing situation doesn’t disqualify them from receiving services because of regulations; that site directors and educators recognize the deeper pain that unstable housing creates in parents and its effect on a child’s mental, physical and social health.

To encourage dialogue, to find out what best is working, what is not working and to foster new strategies, the R9HSA is calling together educators, site directors, superintendents, social workers and other stakeholders to gather Wednesday, June 5, in San Francisco for a Round Table on Services to Families Experiencing Homelessness. Presentations from selected agencies will be made as well as separate group reflections on urban and rural settings and challenges facing grantees, delegates and community partners there.

We know there’s increasing concern in the Head Start community about families at-risk or experiencing homelessness. To showcase one new model of service, in December, R9HSA presented a seminar featuring Danny Goya, manager of the Oahu, Hawaii, Ka Pa‘alana Homeless Family Education Program that brings mobile support to children and parents who don’t have homes.

Families made homeless by economic circumstances or natural disasters face an uphill battle to get education, health and social services for their toddlers and pre-schoolers. The well-established, accredited program developed on Oahu manages the challenges of going directly to where homeless families live and offering mobile support. More of this kind of strategy, tactic and service are what we hope come forth from our round table event. We need to replicate success like this across the West.

Most families experiencing homelessness don’t live in shelters, and move frequently. They may seek resources, supports, and assistance to meet their basic needs in places, such as motels, food pantries, soup kitchens and thrift stores.

Head Start offers vital services that can assist parents in getting back into the workforce. Take the case of a Sacramento family of four—mom, dad, two little boys:

The family without a home found its way to a Sacramento transitional shelter and program and mom and dad began doing the things needed to secure jobs.

But having an 18-month-old son to care for still made it difficult for both parents to go to work, so they looked at for daycare options. And that’s when they found Sacramento Employment and Training Agency’s Head Start program.


“The Head Start staff was so welcoming and friendly,” said, the mom, Lucia, “and that made us very comfortable with the program. Getting my son into Early Head Start was another one of those wise decisions we made.”


With the toddler in preschool, the mom was able to go back to school and get her GED and then attend a nine-week program called Women’s Empowerment. After finishing the classes, she found a job. “To be able to work and know I don’t have to worry about child care is truly a blessing,” she said.

And then came along one of those other moments of serendipity, created by opportunity and being in the right place. “While my son was attending Head Start, the program had a 30th anniversary celebration, and we were asked to speak about how the SETA Head Start helped us while we were homeless. After giving our talk a gentleman walked up and offered my husband a position in IT.”

And once again, their life changed again for the better. “If it wasn’t for Head Start giving the family a slot for the toddler to attend, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” Lucia said. “That little boy who was 18 months old is now in fourth grade.

And here’s the rest of the story. Father has been working at SETA for six years, and mom is the Outreach Coordinator at the Mustard Seed School. Said Lucia, “To give back and let other families know that there is a way out of homelessness is the best job ever.”

If our nation is the land of second chances where we have the freedom to change our lives and to start again, then we in Head Start have a huge role to play and amazing resources to offer. The June 5 round table is a place to celebrate our successes and find new paths to success to help families experiencing homelessness.­­­

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The Vision

All children, regardless of their circumstance at birth, deserve a full and prosperous life.

The Mission

  • Support high-impact Head Start programs for children and adults by creating opportunities for collaboration, networking and information sharing.
  • Unite with state and national Head Start organizations to ensure regulatory and budget outcomes that support our work.
  • Champion the message that every child and family who succeeds makes their community a better place.
  • Provide resources to assist our members in compliance and professional development.

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