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Research and Innovation

N.C. Needed a Plan to Help Homeless Kids. Now It Has One.

photo shows a toddler's hands. the toddler is using crayons to color in a picture.
Photo credit: Lucas Alexander.

There are tens of thousands of homeless children in North Carolina – including more than 30,000 infants, toddlers and preschool-aged children. And while these young people would benefit significantly from public services, they are among the least likely to receive those services. A new action plan aims to bridge the gap between the state’s homeless children and the services that can help them.

To learn more about the Action Plan for an Early Childhood Homelessness Support System, which was issued by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services earlier this month, we talked to Mary Haskett. Haskett, who co-authored the action plan, is a professor of psychology at NC State whose work focuses on children and families who are experiencing homelessness.

The Abstract: What was the impetus for developing the action plan? What’s the problem it’s setting out to address?

Mary Haskett: Young children without stable homes are among the most at-risk children in our state for developmental delays and mental health challenges, and thus are in greatest need of early childhood services. Yet these children are among the least likely to receive services or resources in their early years, a critical developmental period. Our state must accelerate efforts to reach and support these children because the pandemic exacerbated risks to young children who experience homelessness. The pandemic also exposed preexisting problems in access, equity, and quality of both housing and early childhood services systems. I’m feeling a great deal of pressure to push the state – and myself as an individual – to step up now.

TA: How does that tie in to your research background? Or, to put it another way, why were you selected to pull this plan together?

Haskett: The goal of my research is to understand the developmental status of young children experiencing homelessness and learn about effective ways to support them. Because parents have a critical role in promoting their children’s resilience, one of the best ways to support positive outcomes for children is to build their parents’ childrearing skills and confidence. My studies are designed to identify interventions that effectively support parents.

In 2015, I co-founded a grassroots state organization of advocates and experts who were concerned about the impact of homelessness on very young children. Our group, Yay Babies! (who doesn’t love babies?), set out to shape state and local policies, practices and programs that could support the healthy development of these children. Yay Babies! was uniquely positioned to prepare a state action plan, so Marsha Basloe (co-chair of Yay Babies! with Laura Hewitt of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services) and I submitted a proposal to NC DHHS to prepare an action plan as part of NC’s federal Preschool Development Grant. The federal grant was funded, so the Division of Child Development and Early Education (DCDEE) contracted with NC State to prepare the plan.

TA: What was the process for organizing this plan? How was it developed?

Haskett: First, we listened and learned. We heard perspectives of parents experiencing homelessness across the state, collected and analyzed data from early childhood education providers and homeless service providers in NC, reviewed the research literature and white papers from government and nonprofit organizations, and discussed the issues with leaders in relevant fields.

Then, we prepared a set of values and a mission and vision for the plan in collaboration with Yay Babies! members. We generated an initial set of goals and strategies to achieve the mission, and a series of drafts were reviewed for suggested edits by parents, leaders in state government, and experts across early childhood sectors.

After goals and actions were finalized, we established a timeline for meeting the goals and listed the agencies and organizations necessary to collaborate to reach each goal.

TA: What are the key recommendations of the plan?

Haskett: The action plan is organized around five key goals, and we recommend that relevant state offices and nonprofit organizations collaborate with parents to close current gaps in early childhood services for young children and families experiencing homelessness, actively reach and effectively serve these families, and measure the state’s progress toward reaching the plan’s goals.

The five goals are:

Build capacity and support for professionals who work with young children to identify and provide appropriate services for children experiencing homelessness and their caregivers.

Build the capacity of organizations to design and implement equitable policies and practices that (a) mitigate the potential trauma of homelessness; (b) empower parental engagement, leadership and advocacy; (c) prioritize homeless families and young children; and (d) use a two-generation approach to proactively connect caregivers and their children to resources necessary to meet family goals.

Create integrated, accessible, equitable and child-centered community-based systems change plans focused on the needs of young children and caregivers experiencing homelessness.

Improve, leverage and integrate early childhood homelessness data.

Leverage diverse funding sources to support Goals 1-4.

TA: What needs to happen for this plan to accomplish its goals? What are some of the key challenges?

Haskett: A key challenge is that the population we are trying to support consists largely of very young, racially minoritized children living in poverty. These children have little political clout and few strong advocates. Further, these children tend to be invisible in our communities, so they are easy to ignore. We must find champions at the state level across sectors (i.e., early childhood education, homelessness services, pediatrics, mental health, early intervention). Those champions then need to convene the relevant parties to review the plan, identify funding sources and establish priority goals as well as metrics. The champions need to be committed for the long haul, as the challenges I just mentioned will take time to overcome.

The plan is bold, but I believe it is achievable.

TA: You’ve worked on this plan for the past three years. Are you more optimistic about the state of programs aimed at addressing child homelessness than you were three years ago? Or less?

Haskett: I recognize that the plan is bold, but I believe it is achievable. I’m more optimistic than I was when we started this plan, for two reasons.

First, there is greater public awareness of the fact that there are infants and toddlers in our NC neighborhoods without homes. Homelessness among young children became more evident among the general population during the pandemic.

Second, NC DHHS has invested in development of this plan because it recognizes that these children represent a large and growing segment of our society and their needs have been ignored. With state leadership (and hopefully, continued funding), I believe gaps in access and quality of services for these children can be closed. Sharing the plan with the broader community through media attention could increase pressure on policymakers to accelerate action on the plan.