developmental delays

Early homelessness sets stage for school, mental health problems

Byline: 

The truest victims of homelessness are young children, who have no control over the decisions that put them there, and no power to change their circumstances.

The typical homeless families in the country are headed by young women in their 20s, typically with two children. Nearly half those kids are under age five.

The consequences of homelessness can be devastating and long-lasting for young children. By age eight, one in three homeless children has a mental health problem that affects their functioning, said Karen Hudson, social worker with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a national expert on homeless children.

More than three-quarters of homeless children under age five have developmental delays. And nearly 40 percent exhibit emotional and behavioral problems, she said.  These early problems can set the stage for problems, including homelessness, later in life. Surveys have noted that more than one-quarter of homeless adults experienced homelessness when they were young.

Children who lack stable housing face a host of challenges that stress their developing systems, including lack of sleep, hunger, fear, and increased levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, which can wreak havoc on young brains.

Sleep deprivation or disruption can make a child look and behave as though they have severe behavioral problems such as oppositional defiant disorder, said Dr. Ben Danielson, medical director of the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic of Children’s Hospital and Medical Center in Seattle.

The symptoms that result from the stress of homelessness, can include anxiety, depression, extreme withdrawal, poor concentration or various forms of “acting out,” such as tantrums.

“We see attachment disorders, big time,” said Danielson.

Serious mental problems can go untreated because they are difficult to diagnose.

“Depression can look a lot different in kids,” said Danielson. “A child might not say,