Homeless children face immediate needs – such as food and shelter – but the experience also leaves them with more permanent scars.
Among them, homeless children are at risk for PTSD because they’ve often been in unsafe traumatic conditions, said Ellen Braaten, Ph.D., associate director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital and director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program (LEAP).
“Even for kids who haven’t been through a trauma, they are frequently in and out of different schools so their education is disrupted, which leads to insufficient performance in academic subjects.”
In addition to contributing to poor school functioning and learning disabilities, living in a shelter can also affect self-esteem.
“There are also safety concerns, loss of stability and the anxiety that goes into not knowing where you are going to sleep,” Braaten said. “These can really lead to other mental health issues like depression, anxiety, behavioral problems and aggression. We see a much higher rate in these issues when children have been homeless.”
To raise awareness and educate the public about child homelessness and its connection to mental health, the Clay Center has partnered with Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., on the Child Homelessness Initiative, which was established with support from Laurie Schoen and the Schoen Family Foundation.
Lesley University has developed a certificate program surrounding the issue of child homelessness, according to Lisa Fiore, Ph.D, a professor of education at Lesley and director of the Child Homelessness Initiative.
“The mental health component is a visible component in the curriculum,” Fiore said.
The course is designed for students as well as clinicians in the field who work with children and families and brings a multidisciplinary perspective to understanding the nature, origins and psychosocial consequences of child homelessness.
Intervention strategies aimed at addressing the psychological and material needs of homeless children and their families are also included. Fiore said the program may evolve into becoming a minor at the college.
Also as part of the initiative, the Clay Center is producing a series of podcasts about child homelessness, some of which are already available for listening on the center’s Web site.
Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds Executive Director Gene Beresin, M.D., said there is a need for public education on the issues surrounding child homelessness and teachers and school officials are often among the first people to make contact with homeless children and their families.
“Schools could really be a safe haven for parents, to get support and assistance to talk about their kids, because it’s the only place the parents may go on a regular basis,” Beresin said.
It is important for teachers to understand what the experience of homelessness means for a child, Beresin said. “Because it really isn’t just intuitive and it isn’t the same as everybody else,” he said. “Most of these kids have been traumatized. Understanding trauma is really important.
“The teachers need to be sensitive to the various psychological and social stress factors that homeless children have, so they can really be sensitive on how to work with them developmentally and psychologically, and be in tune with them. School is really a place where kids spend most of their time and where we have the best shot at helping parents and kids,” Beresin said.
Beresin added that many homeless youth don’t exhibit behavioral problems and are therefore under the radar. “So their inner suffering and parental suffering and lack of resources goes under the radar unless they act up and cause a ruckus, but many don’t – they just go to school and nobody knows,” he said. “The invisibility of the homeless child who is not a behavioral problem is really an issue.”
Beresin hopes the initiative promotes advocacy among parents, teachers, and counselors, to appeal to school boards and legislators for funding and programs.
Fiore hopes the initiative raises awareness of the issues of homelessness, and educates future teachers about how to partner with community resources and organizations. “We want to stress to parents and teachers to talk to professionals – such as school psychologists – and partner to bring together people with different backgrounds and areas of expertise.”
By Pamela Berard