POST TIME: 6 September, 2018 00:00 00 AM
Homelessness takes toll on kids' health

Homelessness takes 
toll on kids' health

Homelessness threatens young children's health, even if it occurs while they're still in the womb, a new study shows.

"These findings back up what we already knew about how the stress of homelessness affects children's heath, but this helps us determine which children are at greatest risk, and makes the argument that policymakers and providers need to intervene to change the trajectory of a child's development," said study author Dr. Megan Sandel. She's from Children's HealthWatch, based out of Boston Medical Center.

The study included 20,000 low-income caregivers of children under the age of 4 at outpatient pediatric  clinics in five US cities between 2009 and 2015. The caregivers were asked about the children's exposure to homelessness.

The children were assessed to determine their overall health, if/how often they'd been in hospital, and if they had any developmental delays.

More than 3 per cent of caregivers said children experienced homelessness while still in the womb (prenatal), 3.7 per cent said children experienced homelessness after birth (postnatal), and 3.5 per cent said children experienced both prenatal and postnatal homelessness. Children who experienced homelessness for more than six months were at high risk of poor health, as were those who had both prenatal and postnatal exposure to homelessness, according to the study.

The results show that the earlier and longer children experience homelessness, the greater the risk to their health and development, according to the researchers.

"As pediatricians, we should be regularly screening families for housing insecurity, including past history and future risk of homelessness," senior study author Dr. Deborah Frank said in a medical center news release.

"Interventions that prevent homelessness for families and pregnant women can be extremely effective, and with data on the housing status of our patients, we can better advocate for more resources to drive innovations in addressing housing instability," Frank said.

Children who lack a stable home are vulnerable to a number of adverse outcomes. Some threats, such as poverty and hunger, may precede episodes of homelessness; others stem directly from living without a home.

Homeless children are more likely than other children to have moderate to severe acute and chronic health problems, and less access to medical and dental care. Symptoms of asthma, hyperactivity/inattention, and behavior problem are more prevalent among this group. Children without stable homes are more than twice as likely as others to repeat a school grade, be expelled or suspended, or drop out of high school. A quarter or more of homeless children have witnessed violence, and more than half have problems with anxiety and depression. Family homelessness may result in children’s separation from their parents—either because children are formally placed in foster care, or because parents leave children in the care of relatives and friends.

“Unaccompanied youth” are children and youth who are homeless and on their own—that is, not living with their families. This group includes “runaway” youth, youth whose parents encouraged them to leave or locked them out of their home, and independent youth from families where irreconcilable conflicts or loss of contact have made it impossible for them to return home.

 Many are victims of abuse; many spent time in foster care as children. Due to the challenges in identifying them, unaccompanied youth are often excluded from estimates of the homeless population.