Here we’ll look at a range of things to consider when working with homeless families and/or their children. This includes information about their potential backgrounds and their current challenges, and also how their current experiences could impact on their children. We’ll end with some tips about how you might be able to support them.

What exactly does the term ‘homeless’ mean?

According to Crisis, someone will be termed as ‘homeless’ if they don’t have ‘a place to live that's supportive, affordable, decent and secure’.

In the UK this has become the reality for a large number of families, some of whom already have young children or have babies on the way. We might also find that this problem starts increase because of factors such as Pandemic-related financial challenges, and some changes to the benefit system, that took place before the Pandemic.

How likely are you to be working with homeless families or children?

According to Crisis, at the end of 2019 there were 219,000 homeless households. It’s possible that some of these homeless families may live in self-contained accommodation of a very poor quality, and others might be in hostels or bed and breakfasts.

At the end of 2020, we conducted a survey of nursery workers, and 19% of those who responded said they had worked with families affected by homelessness.

Common challenges faced by families who experience homelessness

A number of parents or carers who find themselves homeless will have dealt with a number of other challenges beforehand. These might include experiences of domestic abuse or mental health difficulties. A number are also likely to have experiences challenging childhoods. As well as financial or employment challenges, causes for homelessness can also be connected with relationships breaking down or housing pressures - such as an eviction or overcrowding. 

When a pregnancy occurs, this can sometimes be the ‘last straw’ for a relationship that already has difficulties.

How will being homeless impact on the families, babies and young children that you work with?

It is important not make assumptions about all homeless families and their babies and children, as there will be some homeless parents or carers who can manage to create a secure base, and offer emotionally attuned care to their child despite the challenges they face. 

However, when parents or carers are experiencing stress and uncertainty, or poor mental health, they can find it more difficult to provide sensitive, consistent and nurturing care for their babies. This can have a significant effect on their children. This is because the first two years of life is a time of rapid growth for infants’ brains and bodies, and it’s when the child’s firm foundations are laid.  We know that early experiences have long term and far-reaching impacts upon future development.

Babies are often overlooked in housing policy and research, perhaps because they cannot speak out about their experience. But they are likely to be vulnerable, and be impacted by the effects of this challenging circumstance.

Some research has shown that babies affected by homelessness may have an increased risk of being born early, with a low birth weight. There is also evidence of poor mental health in children and developmental delay.

Things you can do to help

Homeless families can be marginalised by society, and they might face structural barriers to accessing services. Some might also struggle to engage with services for other reasons. Because of this, professionals can often feel powerless and frustrated because they can’t help them, as do the parents or carers who are in need of support.

Homeless parents or carers are often preoccupied with the practical problems facing them, so it’s easy for the immediate well-being of their baby to get ignored. Early years practitioners are often well placed to help create positive changes, because when a new life appears, it can bring a struggling family new hope and mean that they are more open to the opportunity for change. Most families will want to do the best for their babies, whatever their circumstances. 

As part of your role, you can help refocus attention on to babies in this situation. Make them a priority, and engage with them, as ‘little people in their own right’, with their own minds and feelings. If the parents or carers are there, you can use your skills to encourage them to do this too, and to model ‘responsive play’ to them – i.e. by demonstrating ways that they can interact and engage with the baby in a playful way. You can also help them to recognise how important their role is to their baby, and try to help them enjoy each other, despite all the challenges that may have been weighing on their minds. (Apparently little moments of emotionally warm, baby-centred attention can have a big impact for these families.) Also bear in mind, some of these families might be separated, both emotionally and physically, from their home countries and families.

Sometimes you may need to go to individual rooms (or virtually during covid) to help these parents or carers build relationships with their babies. It might be helpful for this to happen when parents or carers first join your setting. This will help them gain confidence to start visiting other groups in the community.

Remember - it’s important not give up and to continue offering consistent and sensitive care, even at time when your calls are not answered, and progress seems slow

How to get further help and support

Working with homeless families can be emotionally draining, and early years staff need the right skills, competencies and supervision to enable them to provide care that’s driven by the best interests of babies and their families. 

Ensure that you or your staff are given suitable training and, when possible, set in place both supervisors and peer networks of practitioners who will be able to offer the staff in your setting a further understanding of child development, perinatal mental health, and infant mental health. 

It’s useful to become familiar with useful outside organisations that offer advice to families about housing locally, but also nationally, (for example Shelter link). You can try and link up with organisations that offer practical support in the specific area in which you work, such as food and baby banks, or welfare advice.  Local CAMHS, disability, IAPT and counselling services will also be helpful for some families. Maybe you can put together a file that has all the main contact details for these organisations.

You can also link up with health visitors, and find out the locations where weigh in clinics take place in hostels or local children’s centres. This can be a ‘way in’ to a playful stay and play setting, for they attend to both physical and emotional care.

For further information see the report: An Unstable Start: All babies count - spotlight on Homelessness, written in partnerships between NSPCC and Anna Freud Centre, for this will provide some useful theoretical and practical background.

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