Thursday, January 31, 2013

What homelessness does to a child

We’ve always believed that part of the “hand up” we provide is a safe, stable place for a homeless family to live while they regain their footing. We see it as a respite for the parent from all consuming financial pressures.

But we’re also providing respite for the children. One of the young men who went through our Teen Program while his mother went through the Adult Program told us, “Prior to being accepted into the program at Community LINC my family stayed in shelters and with friends and family. I hated the thought of having to change schools again.  I was a good student and always thought about having the opportunity to attend college.” Because of the instability in his life, he didn’t think he would ever have that chance.

To paraphrase a research paper by our Children’s Program Director, “Homelessness influences every aspect of a child’s life from the moment they are born all the way into adulthood. Worrying about where they will sleep and what they will eat creates an enormous amount of distress for a child. The overlying problem is that traumatic situations connected with being homeless cause children to have abnormally high levels of stress in their lives. Although there are many factors that culminate to negatively influence a homeless child’s life, stress is the main contributor. Much less, about a quarter of all homeless children witness domestic violence.”

“Repeated stress changes the way the brain develops by changing pathways in the prefrontal cortex. Children in poverty show similar brain patterns to what is seen in patients who suffer from lesions to the brain caused by strokes. Chronic stress has such a tremendous impact on the anatomy of children’s brains because the younger a person is the more malleable their brain is.”

Julius, the young man who wanted to go to college, but was afraid it wouldn’t be possible, is in college now. Both he and his older brother have broken with the cycle their mother has experienced in her life.

Next month, I’ll share more about how children can learn to overcome the damage homelessness has done.