“Our children are our greatest treasure. They are our future. Those who abuse them tear at the fabric of our society and weaken our nation.” Those are the words of the South African freedom fighter and international icon, Nelson Mandela.
Children represent the possibility of a future beyond the one we can comprehend as adults at this very moment. They hold in their minds and bodies features of the future. And as such, their childhoods are worth protecting, and their personhood is worth fighting for.
Our focus on children has been primarily on those who are facing homelessness. The impact of homelessness on children cannot be understated; it rewires their sense of stability and often leads to many social ills that stain their lived experiences.
Children, whether alone or with their families, face a high risk of stunted growth in all areas of their lives. The lack of food is the most obvious, but the ripple effect affects their ability to learn, their will to apply themselves in the classroom, and even disruptive behavioral issues. Children facing homelessness are hyper-conscious about their environment-they often have to be if they are going to hold on to the few possessions they have and survive through the night at different locations.
As you can imagine, a hyper-alert mind has a hard time trusting, and in a child’s body, that is an overwhelming feeling. In most cases, family and friends would intervene if a child struggles to handle the emotions they are experiencing. However, that is not an option for children whose parents cannot comprehend the feelings themselves or don’t have the time and attention required to help the child. In a state of homelessness, essentials and a home take priority, and emotional wellbeing is a secondary need.
An ecosystem of support is required to care for children in this heightened state of vulnerability. It takes a Village.
The reason for homelessness might be a significant departure point. If a family was escaping harm or abuse, that area needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, being without a home increases the chances of harm and abuse, so temporary housing goes a long way in assisting, along with any therapy that a child might need.
A reliable supply of food, warmth, clean water and hygienic facilities such as washing machines, clean toilets, and showers make a difference. It might seem that these have been offered to people since World War II, but the difference they make to one’s health and psyche is invaluable. These aspects help children feel that even though they are experiencing homelessness, they can still fit into their social circles and not stand out.
We designed our programs to meet children’s cognitive needs. Education is important, and families know that. But research repeatedly shows that the environment plays a significant role in determining the educational outcomes of children. Something as disruptive as homelessness can be distracting and confusing to a child, so much so that any educational intervention must identify that a child’s cognitive ability is not at its best during that period.
Our efforts do not solve it all for them, but it assures them there is someplace they can go to catch up and express their full potential.
As a donor or volunteer, it might feel that your efforts are not deeply impactful or far-reaching, but the pathways to success are fortified when more of us intervene. Early parenthood, addiction, survivalist criminal activity, and abuse are common risks for homeless children whose needs are unattended. More pronounced is that the lack of adults who see and acknowledge them frequently unknowingly allows them to suffer in the shadows, and their silence accelerates the harm that typically befalls homeless children.
It is important to remember that homelessness is a shock to the narrative that people live in homes and get to build a life they can recognize in those homes. It is a harmless narrative we pass on in formal and informal circles without much thought.
When the home suddenly disappears, and distress becomes the dominant state on the face of adults, children begin internalizing the fear and trauma. Evidence suggests that trauma stays in the body, and how we make decisions is often dictated by said trauma.
It is hard to see children suffering, particularly because they do not have much of a say in the circumstances they find themselves in, nor do they have the control and rights to change it themselves. It then rests on the adults in the community to be proactive about advocating for them and creating a safe environment for them.
We hope that more people are empathetic enough to intervene and reassure them that there are many realities in life where people can help each other and fill in the necessary gaps to help them succeed.
You can donate, write an encouraging letter, volunteer your time, advocate for homeless children in your school district, or use your influence to address the broader housing issue plaguing our communities. Wealth need not be a prerequisite for human dignity, and more than the adults that are often judged, children get to suffer too.
Join any of our initiatives to make the world safer for children.