New report: Childhood homelessness rising, higher than data show

The number of homeless children under the age of 4 in Michigan has reached 15,565—and is likely even higher—according to Homelessness in Early Childhood, a new report from the Michigan League for Public Policy and Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan. Using the broader educational definition of homelessness, this is over two and a half times the number that is reported by the state’s shelter system.

“Crucial brain development takes place between birth and age 4, and kids who experience the trauma of homelessness face obstacles to their own physical and emotional growth. These kids are so little, and we should be doing everything we can to help them and their families to thrive,” said Alicia Guevara Warren, Kids Count Project Director for the Michigan League for Public Policy.

Fifty-four percent of preschool children experiencing homelessness have a major developmental delay, compared with just 16 percent of their peers who are not homeless. And nearly half of all children who were homeless were chronically absent last school year.

“If we’re going to adequately address the issue of homelessness among young children, we first need a complete picture. Right now, it is easy for kids to slip through the cracks and go un-identified because we have no unified system of support and we rely on reporting from a variety of organizations. The state needs a unified database—one that examines inequities based on race and ethnicity—in order for us to truly develop and fund resources to save kids,” said Jennifer Erb-Downward, Senior Research Associate for Poverty Solutions.

The report uses Michigan Department of Education data analyzed by Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan to explore homelessness between birth and age 4 and makes policy recommendations to ensure all children can enter kindergarten ready to learn.

“The negative impact on educational outcomes is disturbing, but not surprising. Young children without a stable place to live are struggling, and without needed supports, the repercussions continue into grade school, impacting attendance and proficiency in math and reading. We can see that we’re not doing enough as a state to lift them up,” Erb-Downward said.

In addition to encouraging better data collection, the report raises the need for coordination of services.

“Policymakers need to support a system of care approach so a case manager can work with a family to coordinate services based on that family’s needs. When families are bounced from agency to agency without a connection between case managers and agencies, information can easily get lost in the shuffle. We’re talking about thousands of little Michiganders who could truly thrive if we could tie those services together,” said Guevara Warren.

The state’s current affordable housing crisis, which is widespread, is a big part of the problem, too, according to the report. Right now, for every 100 renters with extremely low incomes, there are only 37 affordable housing units, and housing discrimination is a big piece of that crisis.

“Relative to the need there are very few vouchers available under HUD’s Housing Choice Voucher program, and landlords often compound the problem by rejecting prospective tenants based on that income source. Up to 78 percent of those voucher holders are denied by landlords in the U.S. And ‘source of income’ discrimination is often just a cover for landlords who illegally discriminate based on race, ethnicity and disability,” said Julie Cassidy, a senior policy analyst at the Michigan League for Public Policy.

The report’s major recommendations include: Improving data collection; supporting coordination of services; increasing access to early childhood education opportunities; and ending housing discrimination.

The counties with the highest percentage of young children who are homeless are rural, and include Alger, Lake and Arenac counties. Seventy-five percent of all young children experiencing homelessness, though, live in urban areas of the state.
 

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