Scattered across America, in small towns, rural communities, mid-sized cities and mega urban areas, more than 1.8 million babies and toddlers, with parents/guardians, struggle to survive in various iterations of homelessness. The face of homelessness, typically portrayed as a grizzled man on the street corner, is more accurately like the photo above.
I just finished a photo project in California where I was privileged to spend time with a dozen or so “Littles” at a spectacular Sacramento daycare program that needs to be cloned. Having run shelters, serving families and adults for 15 years, I’ve seen my share of little ones in need of stability. Unfortunately, an estimated 90+% of the babies and toddlers in homeless situations have no access to structured childcare(see your state’s profile). Their loss. Our loss.
My friends who are experts in child development will point to copious studies proving that the ages birth to 5 are the most critical in a child’s life, when they develop the psychological and physical wherewithal to become productive, healthy bigger people.
So, explain it to me like I’m a 5-year-old: Why do we think it’s acceptable to virtually ignore the needs of over a million little kids?
It’s a steep climb to get people to acknowledge that the homeless population in this country is comprised of more than the (entirely deserving of help) weather-worn adults that we notice in every community. My “favorite” federal department in charge of all things homeless, HUD, has managed to diabolically reduce the population of homelessness by radically shrinking the definition and counting only a smidgen of those homeless, all but eliminating most families (and others not deemed “chronic” enough).
In the meantime, families “lucky” enough to be able to stay in shelters often have to leave during daytime hours, so (mostly) moms pack up their kids, including their young ones, and head out the door, many with nowhere to go all day. Imagine traipsing through snowbanks or searching for a place to escape blazing sun, lugging your baby and hanging onto your toddlers. It happens far more than we’d like to think.
Daycare centers serving our Littlest Nomads would be an obvious solution. But it’s rare. To no surprise, impoverished families, to which homeless families belong by default, can’t afford childcare. The families that could most benefit by a structured, clean, safe place for their children to spend part of the day — tough luck.
Inequality starts in the crib and doesn’t stop.
Affluent parents and grandparents obsess about the type and quality of childcare for their offspring, like this grandmother whose column pays lip service to the financially unendowed:
But when I see the challenges they [homeless families] face, I can’t help but compare the head start our grandchildren have on their pursuit of happiness.
Quality daycare is important. I get that. But it’s important for all children. And those who get off on the wrong foot are often doomed to stay on the wrong foot, being less successful in social skills and educational accomplishments, greatly reducing their opportunities as they get older.
My fantasy is having thousands of parents/guardians with their crying little ones circling the Capitol until Congress does the right thing — prioritize life-enhancing supports for families with Littlest Nomads. Instead they’re scheming to build more jail cells.