By: Laura Trejo, Spring 2019 HeLP Legal Services Clinic Intern
In December of last year, Sesame Street introduced its first homeless character, a Muppet named Lily. Lily and her parents are temporarily staying with her teacher while her parents struggle to find stable housing. Unfortunately, homelessness is a reality for millions of children across the country. More than 2.5 million children in the United States are currently experiencing homelessness. During the 2016-2017 school year, Georgia had an estimated youth and children homeless population of 38,474, with 732 students still unsheltered. Of students who had a nighttime residence, 3,499 were in shelters, 6,700 were in hotels or motels, and 27,543 were “doubled up,” a term that refers to a situation where individuals are unable to maintain their housing situation and are forced to stay with a series of friends or extended family members.
Homelessness affects children at every stage of development. Children of homeless mothers begin to feel the effects of homelessness in the womb. Service providers report that 40 percent of homeless women abuse alcohol and drugs, and 20 percent of homeless mothers report alcohol and drug abuse during pregnancy. Homeless women also tend to suffer from chronic and acute health problems that can affect the prenatal development of their children. Finally, 50 percent of homeless women do not receive prenatal care in the first trimester of pregnancy.
Physically, homelessness exposes children to environmental factors that can endanger their health. Overcrowded living conditions, such as those encountered when staying with family or friends or at a shelter, encourage the spread of illness and infectious diseases. Asthma is common in homeless children due to poor indoor environmental conditions. Exposure to unhealthy indoor environmental conditions such as mold, smoke, and cockroach infestations may lead to an aggravation of asthma symptoms. Homeless children are also more likely to suffer complications from lead and asbestos exposure.
Mentally, the stress of homelessness can lead to developmental delays and emotional issues in children. Seventy-five percent of homeless children under the age of five have at least one major developmental delay, while 44 percent have two or more major developmental delays. These developmental delays, in turn, negatively affect homeless children’s performance in school. Despite an increased need for special services, only 38 percent of homeless children with learning disabilities receive treatment for their disabilities, and only nine percent are in special education classes. Finally, the lack of stable housing and frequent moves make it even more difficult for homeless children to succeed in school.
The stigma associated with homelessness means individuals struggling with homelessness are less likely to speak out or ask for help. Lily the homeless Muppet provides a friendly medium through which to teach parents, teachers, and children how to start a conversation about homelessness. Similarly, medical-legal partnerships such as the Health Law Partnership (HeLP) can provide doctors with a list of questions to ask their patients to evaluate their housing situation and refer them to legal aid if necessary. Law student interns in the HeLP Clinic at Georgia State University College of Law aid their clients suffering from unhealthy living conditions, housing instability, or homelessness by helping the clients find safe, stable housing. The Clinic is also instrumental in aiding children with learning disabilities to receive the education services they need to succeed in school and reducing the negative effects of homelessness on children’s cognitive development. Although the effects of homelessness on children are severe and far-reaching, they can be alleviated through increased access to services provided by medical-legal partnerships, like the HeLP Clinic, who provide hope for the homeless.