The Consequences of Homelessness – a Childhood on the Streets
“A therapeutic intervention with homeless children (2) often confronts us with wounds our words cannot dress nor reach. These young subjects seem prey to reenactments of a horror they cannot testify to” (Schweidson & Janeiro 113). According to Marcal, a stable environment and involved parenting are essential regarding ability to provide a healthy growing environment for a child (350). It is unfortunate then, that Bassuk et al. state that 2.5 million, or one in every 30 children in America are without a home (14). Homelessness creates many barriers for all who are unfortunate enough to fit in the category, but it can be far more detrimental to the growth and development of a child. These barriers can include mental health issues, damage to one’s physical health, barriers and struggles regarding education, and the likelihood of engaging in criminal behavior.
Children who are homeless face a significant risk of deteriorated mental health. A study conducted by Cumella et al. collected data by surveying parents of a sample containing 81 children (336). Within this sample, 30% of parents stated that their children had “behavioral problems” (Cumella et al. 336). These mental health issues can include illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD. According to Marcal, homeless children are at a higher risk of developing mental illness due to perpetual instability in housing and education; this perpetual instability can create a lack of social support for the child (350). Social interaction is vital for all, but it is especially necessary for a growing child. This lack of social interaction and support can create a feeling of loneliness and damage a child’s self-esteem. Furthermore, these children can become aware of the problems that their parents are facing and can internalize their emotions in order to avoid burdening their parents further. The environmental instability, the lack of a social support network, and the internalization of issues within the child can put the mental health of children who are homeless at risk.
Mental health is just one aspect of health regarding homeless children; in order to fully grasp the concept of how homelessness affects children, one must look at their physical health as well. Homeless children face exposure to the elements, lack of access to health care services, and malnourishment; all of which put the child’s physical health at risk. Exposure to the elements is an obvious factor that jeopardizes a child’s health. It is more likely for children who are homeless to experience health problems ranging from minor to critical and have barriers that cause health care services to be unobtainable (McCoy-Roth, et al. 2). There are many challenges to gaining access to health care as a homeless child, such as lack of transportation, a lack of finances, and fear of being judged and stigmatized by medical professionals. Furthermore, lack of access to health care services can cause chronic health issues to go unnoticed and untreated, which, in some cases can be fatal. The National Center on Family Homelessness states that (qtd. in McCoy-Roth, et al.) homeless children are two times more likely to experience hunger than children who are living in homes (2). Malnourishment is a major factor that contributes to poor physical health, due to lack of essential nutrients and vitamins for maintaining a healthy body. This lack of vital nutrients can potentially cause stunts in growth and other developmental setbacks. A malnourished body that is frequently exposed to the elements is a recipe for poor physical health.
These effects of mental and physical unwellness create barriers for homeless children in regard to their education. According to McFarland et al., 1.3 million kids in the U.S. were categorized as homeless in the school years 2009-10 through 2014-15 (33). There are multiple reasons why these students may struggle academically. In fact, Weitzman, (qtd. in Tobin & Murphy) states that “homeless preschool children are four times more likely” to have setbacks in their development than their peers, even compared to those who are also in poverty (4). One barrier might be that the homeless student prioritizes getting a job to help their families which creates a lack of academic focus for the child. Additionally, if these students did find work, they would have less time to dedicate for homework and studying. For some students, school lunch is the only meal they get for the entire day. Hunger can cause an inability to focus or concentrate on academic tasks, and as previously mentioned, a malnourished body can lead one to feeling unwell overall. When students feel hungry and unwell, they risk not doing well academically due to the inability to focus and gather information. The importance of obtaining employment to a homeless student and malnourishment can create academic challenges for homeless children.
On top of obtaining employment and coping with malnourishment, students who are homeless lack stability in their environment overall. Tobin and Murphy state that the disruption of learning is more likely for students living in shelters due to frequently changing schools in the middle of the year (4). The likelihood of disruption in learning is often due to stay limits in homeless shelters, causing homeless families to move throughout the cities and neighborhoods they reside in. The consequence of this disrupted learning is that these children perpetually attempt to catch up to new classmates due to a frequently changing curriculum. This constant struggle can often cause burnout and result in a lack of motivation for a student who is homeless. Tobin and Murphy also state that a developmental setback for a child can include language (4). An underdeveloped vocabulary can create a lack of social interaction and support that is vital to a child’s emotional and mental well-being. The potential quietness of a homeless child may cause them to isolate themselves from their classmates, or, for their classmates to ostracize and bully them. The lack of friendship and potential teasing may also contribute to academic apathy within the homeless child. Homeless students may face many obstacles such as employment, hunger and malnutrition, mental health, frequent change of schools, and lack of vital social support and friendship, and these factors can cause students to struggle academically.
Homeless children are already at risk for struggling academically for a multitude of reasons and this can prohibit these children from obtaining traditional employment and participating in criminal behavior. According to Cobb-Clark and Zhu, a male who first becomes homeless prior to or at age 15 are “8.3% less likely to be employed as adults than men” who experience homelessness after age 15, and for females “the gap is much larger at 13.8%” (908). The lack of employment opportunity is an obvious reason why some homeless individuals may not be able to obtain income. The lack of income and feeling of dependency on others, especially with the stigma attached to being homeless may create a diminished self-image within the homeless individual. A homeless, unemployed individual needs to find other ways of survival. This may include engaging in criminal behavior, such as joining a street gang to find social interaction with others, abusing substances in order to self-medicate and avoid reality, or engaging in theft of money or food. Cronley and Madden suggest that children who were aging out of foster care and kids who had been thrown out of their homes by parents were exceptionally susceptible to depending on “survival skills”, and these skills may include drug dealing and property crime (198). The participation in these activities can lead to the homeless child finding themselves frequently incarcerated. Prison populations are also particularly susceptible to exposure to new methods of crime and becoming victims of violent behavior. This frequency of incarceration can also diminish self-esteem, mental health, and damage one’s physical health. Due to the potential struggles, barriers, and risks faced by homeless children, they may find it difficult to thrive in academic environments; this can lead to lack of opportunity to find traditional employment. The lack of opportunity for employment can leave homeless youth susceptible to dependency on survival skills for a lifetime.
Homelessness is extremely difficult for all who ever endure such a condition, but it can prove much more damaging to the growth of a child. Homeless children suffer long-term effects of their circumstance. These long-term effects include damage to mental health, which can manifest in various ways from outward behavior problems to internalized struggles and emotions. The physical health of homeless children can suffer as well, due to exposure to the elements and malnourishment. Homeless children tend to have multiple setbacks in their education, due to constantly changing schools and a lack of social support. Lastly, homeless children are less likely to find traditional employment opportunities. This lack of opportunity leaves this population more susceptible to participate in criminal behaviors in order to survive. This can lead to frequent incarceration, exposure to more violent crime, and a diminished sense of self. Homeless children must have even more resiliency than their peers who are living in stable housing. In order to truly support these individuals, we must learn to recognize barriers and adversities faced by this population and find how we can better combat these issues.