Blog

By Marsha Basloe, CCSA President

This is a heartbreaking fact – the number of young children experiencing homelessness in the United States has grown in the last decade. In fact, this number increased to more than 1.4M in 2017-2018 [i]. That is one out of every 16 young children. What does that look like? Picture a preschool classroom and imagine that one of the young children sitting on the floor listening to the teacher read a favorite book is living in a shelter, on someone else’s couch, in their family’s car, in a cramped motel room or perhaps sleeping somewhere different every night! The ramifications of this level of destabilization on children and families are tremendous. Negative consequences abound. Being homeless as a child can cause negative effects that last for the rest of someone’s life. And, there are concerns today, that the COVID-19 health pandemic will increase family homelessness even more.

Ensuring the early learning and development of our country’s youngest children is essential to Child Care Services Association’s (CCSA) work. Supporting the well-being of these young children and their families is an urgent task and one that is critical to improving the long-term educational outcomes of children nationwide. It is why CCSA is pleased to release the validated and revised Early Childhood Self-Assessment Tool for Shelters, in partnership with the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This tool is designed to guide shelter staff in creating safe, developmentally appropriate environments for infants, toddlers, preschoolers and their families who are experiencing homelessness.

Often young children experiencing homelessness do not receive the social-emotional, educational, medical, mental health and/or special services they need to thrive. Infants and toddlers are particularly impacted by homelessness, with increased risk for early harm to their health and development, as well as having parents with poor physical and mental health, and additional hardships for families. [ii] In fact, infancy is the age at which a person is most likely to live in a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) shelter. [iii]

Shelter staff can help ameliorate these issues for young children, if the shelter has a safe, developmentally appropriate environment for young children and easily connects to community partners who support early childhood development. The Early Childhood Self-Assessment Tool for Shelters can provide shelters the resources and information necessary to support the fragile young children in their care. With the tool’s abundant resources and guidance on best practices, shelters can assess how their programs can best meet the needs of vulnerable young children and their families. The tool also encourages shelters to develop relationships with local resources like early intervention and home visiting programs, child care and WIC, for help implementing new practices and to promote cross-program referrals. Finally, the tool guides shelters through developing action plans to promote positive experiences for children and families.

Knowing that safe and reliable child care is a key component of parents’ abilities to re-establish their lives and obtain steady employment, the self-assessment tool encourages shelters to build collaborations with early childhood programs in their communities. Many early childhood programs have expedited enrollment for families experiencing homelessness, and Head Start/Early Head Start programs are required to prioritize enrollment for these families. Enrolling in early learning programs gives children a chance to participate in age-appropriate activities that foster growth and development and learn at their own pace. Children who receive high quality early childhood education are more likely to be employed full-time and have more financial and personal assets as middle-age adults. [iv]

“The validated Early Childhood Self-Assessment Tool for Shelters has never been more important, as the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing more children to ‘shelter-in-place’ in environments that were not designed for young children, and at agencies that may not have expertise in early childhood development. Collectively, we must protect young children from the harm of homelessness, and take every step to make sure it does not limit their futures. This vital tool can help homeless shelters improve their physical environments, their practices and their partnerships to support young children at a time of great vulnerability, ultimately reducing the risk of experiencing homelessness as adults,” said Barbara Duffield, Executive Director of SchoolHouse Connection, a CCSA partner and lead organization in the Education Leads Home campaign.

The origins of the Early Childhood Self-Assessment Tool for Shelters

During my tenure as senior adviser for the Office of Early Childhood Development at the Administration for Children and Families, I had the opportunity to focus on early childhood homelessness. I quickly learned that homelessness among young children was on the rise and created numerous barriers for children’s development and multiple challenges for parents’ efforts at stabilizing their families.

Seeking ways to support both families and shelters that accept children and families, in 2014, we worked with a Congressional Emerson Hunger Fellow and developed the first edition of the Early Childhood Self-Assessment Tool for Family Shelters: A Guide to Support the Safe and Healthy Development of Young Children in Shelter Settings. The tool was shared by national organizations including NAEH, NAEHCY, CLPHA and SchoolHouse Connection and multiple federal departments as part of the USICH Early Childhood Workgroup. It was used in multiple locations across the country. People’s Emergency Center (PEC) in Philadelphia was using the tool in its BELL Project, and Sara Shaw was working with the project. BELL (Building Early Learning Links) connects early care and education programs to family emergency shelter and transitional housing providers to better respond to the needs of young children experiencing homelessness. Sara Shaw, a doctoral student at the University of Delaware under adviser Rena Hallam, associate professor in the Dept. of Human Development and Family Studies, worked on validating the tool as part of her dissertation. I stayed in contact with Sara during this process and helped coordinate support from the regional office so that she could obtain data from across the country. Her work was just amazing to me!

Fast forward to 2018, when, as president of Child Care Services Association (CCSA) in North Carolina, I continued my work with early childhood homelessness – providing a 50-state chart of CCDF plans by early childhood departments across the country and staying in contact with Sara as she completed her dissertation and validated this tool. In fall 2019, I convened a panel of early childhood experts at CCSA with Dr. Sara Shaw to explore the findings and changes that must be made and review the validated tool from an early childhood education perspective. Today, the validated and revised Early Childhood Self-Assessment Tool for Shelters is ready for release.

The public health and economic crises created by the COVID-19 pandemic are disproportionately impacting people experiencing homelessness. Shelters and other housing assistance programs, most of which are strained in normal circumstances, may be struggling even more to keep up with demand during this period. There may be more young children and families experiencing homelessness. We hope this tool will provide much needed support. Conversations are beginning with partners across the country as we develop technical assistance packages and a 50-state strategy for using the validated tool and connecting young children experiencing homelessness to services. If you are interested in being part of our research, please contact me.

You can find the Early Childhood Self-Assessment Tool for Shelters here.


[i] Yamashiro, A., McLaughlin, J. (2020). Early Childhood Homelessness
State Profiles – Data Collected in 2017-2018
. U.S. Department of Education Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development.

[ii] Cutts, D., Bovell-Ammon A., et al.. (2018). Homelessness During Infancy: Associations With Infant and Maternal Health and Hardship Outcomes. Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Research, Volume 20 Number 2. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

[iii] Gubits, D., Shinn M., Bell S., Wood M., Dstrup S., Solari, C. (2015). Family options study: Short-term impacts of housing and services interventions for homeless families. Washington, D.C.: Prepared for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Policy Development and Research by Abt. Associates and Vanderbilt University.

[iv] Sonnier-Netto, L., Landesman Ramey, S., Stack Hankey, M., Ramey, C. T. (2017). High Quality Early Care and Education Improves Adult Child–Parent Relationships (The Abecedarian Project). Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.

By Marsha Basloe, President, Child Care Services Association

Families with jobs and secure housing access child care through our country’s Child Care Resource & Referral network, friends and family and the internet.  Without child care, families experiencing homelessness struggle to secure housing. And yet, for these families, accessing child care offers two important benefits—the chance to be able to participate in job training, education, and other programs essential to resolving their homelessness and the opportunity to have a safe setting for children to grow!

Research has established a strong connection between a young child’s early experiences and the development of his or her brain structure. According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, the early years of life when more than 1 million new neural connections form every second, can provide a strong or weak foundation for all future learning, behavior and health.[1] We know that homelessness jeopardizes the health, early childhood development and educational well-being of infants, toddlers and preschool-aged children. It also creates unique barriers to participating in early care and education. With nearly 50% of children living in federally-funded homeless shelters under the age of five, this is a problem for families, communities, states and the country.

The Child Care and Development Block Grant Act of 2014, signed into law on November 19, 2014, reauthorized the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) Program. The reauthorized law made significant advancements by defining health and safety requirements for child care providers, outlining family-friendly eligibility policies, and ensuring parents and the general public have transparent information about available child care choices.

The Administration for Children and Families (ACF) published the Final Rule to implement the Child Care and Development Fund program (CCDF) in September 2016. The full regulations may be read here.

The Rule included many items designed to remove barriers and better support young children and families experiencing homelessness. (CCDF Final Rule: Subsidy Eligibility and Homeless Provisions) It included:

  • The McKinney-Vento Act’s education definition of homelessness to be used by child care (and Head Start and public education), 
  • A grace period or flexibility to obtain immunizations and other documents needed so that  children experiencing homelessness can be served more quickly,
  • Outreach to homeless families with children,
  • Training and technical assistance in identifying and serving homeless children and their families,
  • The coordination of services so that families with children can get the help that they need, and
  • Data reporting to know how many families (and children) experiencing homelessness are receiving child care assistance.

States submitted 2016-2018 CCDF Plans and excerpts from Section 3.2.2., Improving Access to High Quality Child Care for Homeless Families, within State Plans were shared here. The state plans for 2016-2018 indicated that while many states had policies in place to help families experiencing homelessness access child care assistance, the majority of states were not yet adequately addressing those families’ unique needs.

The Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) Plan serves as the application for the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) funds by providing a description of, and assurance about, state child care programs and related services available to eligible families. The Office of Child Care reviews the Plans for approval.

The CCDF Plan also presents an opportunity for states to demonstrate the activities and services they are providing to meet the needs of low-income children and families. The Administration for Children and Families (ACF) makes Plans publicly available to many users including members of Congress, Congressional committees, State and local child care administrators, advocacy groups, researchers and the general public. For states looking for innovative ways to better meet the child care needs of families experiencing homelessness, the publication of the state plans serves as a clearinghouse of resources for states to replicate or customize to finetune their strategies to best support these families.

The 2019-2021 CCDF State Plans show that States have embraced the CCDF law and regulations with regard to serving families experiencing homelessness, making changes to policies and practice, including eligibility requirements, coordinating with partners, increasing access and providing professional development for those within the child care field to not only increase access to child care but also to ensure that families with children experiencing homelessness receive the support and services they need. These State Plans can be found here.

View other resources for early childhood homelessness here.


[1] Harvard University, Center on the Developing Child, Brain Architecture.

ZERO TO THREE has published a journal about Young Children and Families Experiencing Homelessness. Articles cover such topics as:

  • An Introduction to Young Children and Families Experiencing Homelessness
  • Current Data on Infant and Toddlers Experiencing Homelessness
  • Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation in Homeless Shelters: Qualities of a Trauma-Informed Consultation Practice
  • Better Together: An Early Head Start Partnership Supporting Families in Recovery Experiencing Homelessness
  • My Baby’s First Teacher: Supporting Parent-Infant Relationships in Family Shelters
  • Building Early Links for Learning: Connections to Promote Resilience for Young Children in Family Homeless Shelters
  • Promoting Caregiver and Child Health Through Housing Stability Screening in Clinical Settings
  • Developmental Consequences of Homelessness for Young Parents and Their Children

Read the journal of ZERO TO THREE here.

Marsha Basloe, President of Child Care Services Association

Homelessness is a reality for many families with young children in our country. In fact, infancy is the period of life when a person is at highest risk of living in a homeless shelter in the U.S. And families with younger parents are at higher risk of experiencing sheltered homelessness than families with relatively older parents. Adults between the ages of 18 and 30 in families with children were three times more likely to use shelter programs than adults over 30 who live with children (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2016 AHAR Part 2).

As president of Child Care Services Association (CCSA), I am committed to ensuring that all our young children have high quality early care and education experiences. CCSA works to ensure affordable, accessible, high quality child care for all families through research, services and advocacy. We provide free referral services to families seeking child care, financial assistance to families who cannot afford quality child care, technical assistance to child care businesses, and educational scholarships and salary supplements to child care professionals through the T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood® and Child Care WAGE$® Projects.

More and more people understand that high quality early childhood care and learning prepares children to succeed in the classroom and in life. Yet, what may not be known is that the impact of homelessness on children, especially young children, is extremely challenging and may lead to changes in brain architecture that can interfere with learning, social-emotional development, self-regulation and cognitive skills. In today’s world, children should be healthy, alert and motivated to have a better chance of leading productive lives. Not every child, however, has that chance.

Last week, Chapin Hall released Missed Opportunities: Pregnant and Parenting Youth Experiencing Homelessness in America. This third Research-to-Impact brief by Chapin Hall presents findings related to the experiences of young people who are pregnant or parenting and don’t have a stable place to live. They learned that rates of pregnancy and parenthood are high among youth experiencing homelessness, and that many of the young parents are homeless with their children. For pregnant and parenting youth who are homeless, the difficulties of coping with pregnancy and parenthood are compounded by the trauma they have experienced and the ongoing stress of not having a safe or stable place to live with their children.

We know that experiences of homelessness in early childhood are associated with poor early development and educational well-being. These experiences during infancy and toddlerhood are associated with poor academic achievement and engagement in elementary school (Perlman & Fantuzzo, 2010). Additionally, experiences of homelessness are associated with social emotional delays among young children (Haskett, et. al, 2015) and poor classroom-based social skills in elementary school (Brumley, Fantuzzo, Perlman, & Zager, 2015). These findings underscore the importance of ensuring that young children and their young parents who are experiencing homelessness have access to support that is critical to improving the long-term educational outcomes of children nationwide.

Karen McKnight, director of our NC Head Start Collaboration Office, coordinated a statewide Trauma in Early Childhood Education Workgroup, and I feel fortunate to be part of this effort. Promoting early childhood development and buffering stress experienced by young children experiencing homelessness and their families will be part of this work. This group of professionals from Head Start, Smart Start, CCR&R, PCANC, NCAEYC, NCIMHA and others will be attending a two-day on-campus program, facilitated by Nonie Lesaux and Stephanie Jones, faculty directors of the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The training is guided by the question: How can early education leaders support the design and implementation of strong early learning environments, particularly in settings serving children facing adversity?

I hope we can all work together to have an early childhood workforce to meet the social-emotional and mental health needs of all our young children and their families. May is Mental Health Awareness Month. How are you supporting this work?

See additional resources below.