UD's Staci Perlman is working to help homeless children access services to support education and development.

Homeless children

UD's Perlman helps homeless children, combats developmental delays


8:15 a.m., Dec. 9, 2014--Children cannot be expected to learn their ABCs when they’re living on the street, or sleeping three to a bed in their aunt’s basement. Unstructured situations such as these can have a profound and long-lasting effect on a child’s ability to learn, thrive or even survive. 

Yet according to a recent report by the National Center on Family Homelessness, 2.5 million children in the U.S. were homeless at some time during 2013. That’s one in 30 children. Many of these children, half of whom are age five or younger, spend nights in emergency or transitional housing.

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For those who think it is only an urban problem, Delaware has 7,798 children homeless and only 220 housing units available for homeless families, earning it a rank of 16th in the nation for lack of support regarding the well-being of homeless children. 

The city of Philadelphia reports nearly 4,000 children and youth were served by emergency/transitional housing programs in 2013. High poverty rates, lack of affordable housing, racial disparities, single parenting and domestic violence and other traumas are cited as among the contributing factors.

Staci Perlman, University of Delaware assistant professor of human development and family studies with a joint appointment in the Delaware Education Research and Development Center, focuses her research on promoting the development and well-being of children and youth experiencing homelessness through community-based partnerships. 

There is strong evidence from developmental science that positive parent-child relationships and quality early educational experiences can lead to appropriate development in these vulnerable children. 

Perlman is looking to maximize young children’s access to these protective factors. She has been:

  • Working with the city of Philadelphia to identify and evaluate the effectiveness of parenting interventions currently being offered in shelters. 
  • Partnering with community providers to pilot a homeless housing provider self-assessment that provides information on the degree to which shelter environments are “child-friendly.” 
  • Collaborating with professionals from around the country to better understand how young children experiencing homelessness and their families access early childhood services – and what barriers providers face in helping them access these services.
  • Serving as an evaluator on a grant with the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, identifying youth who are at risk of homelessness, evaluating service gaps, and developing strategies to address the needs of these youth. It brings together service professionals from various agencies – including child welfare, housing, behavioral health, schools and a range of community-based providers.

UD students invited to assist

This Winter Session, Perlman is offering a seminar titled “Homelessness: Is it Just a Housing Issue?” that is open to students of all majors.

“This seminar will provide UD students with an amazing opportunity,” said Perlman. “They will meet with professionals in the field of family/youth homelessness – but, more importantly, they will have the opportunity to speak directly with youths about their own experiences of homelessness.”

In addition to hearing from experts in the field, students will participate in Philadelphia’s annual Point-in-Time Count. The Department of Housing and Urban Development conducts this annual one-day count of homeless people in shelters, parks and other locales. A single night in January 2013 tallied 610,042 homeless people, including 130,515 children.

Data from this count will be used to help inform and plan the services that are available to youth experiencing homelessness.

“Overall, my hope is that through community collaboration we can develop the evidence-base for effective sustainable interventions that promote positive outcomes for children and youth experiencing homelessness – and that ultimately, these will contribute to the long-term prevention of homelessness,” Perlman said.

To learn more about the impact of homelessness on children, listen to Perlman’s radio interview on WHYY or read national report released in December 2014, America’s Youngest Outcasts

Article by Alison Burris

Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

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