A Missed Opportunity:
Connecting homeless children to child care.

By Abigail Kramer

New York City sponsors hundreds of publicly funded daycare and preschool programs for low-income children.

In theory, they should be invaluable resources for homeless families with infants and toddlers. In practice, however, homeless parents may never hear about them, or may face insurmountable obstacles to getting their children enrolled.

“Child care tends to be a big barrier for homeless families,” says Linda Bazerjian, the director for external affairs at the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness. Some shelters have onsite child care. For example, Women In Need provides families at their 10 shelters with developmentally therapeutic programs that screen children for delays. Other programs have ad hoc centers where staff will babysit children for a few hours. Many have nothing.

High-quality programs free parents to work or go to appointments while providing kids with stable places to grow and learn. “Children in these situations can start out behind in many ways,” Bazerjian says. Good child care can “get them to the same level as their peers.”

Helping children overcome barriers is precisely the goal of the city’s early education system, EarlyLearnNYC. In the past two years, the city has spent close to $500 million to overhaul its network of child care providers, holding them to a higher set of quality requirements, including increased teacher-training and wrap-around supports for struggling families. The goal: ensuring that low-income kids get high quality services that prepare them for success in elementary school and beyond.

Advocates for homeless children, however, say that shelters often fail to help their clients take advantage of EarlyLearnNYC programs. “Because there’s been an incredible crush of families in the shelter system, all attention has been focused on finding permanent housing,” says Jennifer Pringle, the project director of NYS-TEACHS, a state-funded program designed to improve educational outcomes for homeless children. Other goals may never make it onto the priority list, she says.

In the summer of 2014, Pringle’s team worked with staff members from the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) and the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), which runs the EarlyLearnNYC program, to educate homeless shelter providers about the benefits of high-quality early education. They also encouraged EarlyLearnNYC providers to recruit children from homeless shelters.

It’s difficult to gauge the success of that effort, however, since the city doesn’t track the number of homeless children enrolled in EarlyLearnNYC programs.

High-quality programs free parents to work or go to appointments while providing kids with stable places to grow and learn.

Even when homeless parents do make it to the door of an EarlyLearnNYC program, they may face a long and cumbersome paperwork enrollment process. Parents receiving federal cash assistance benefits are automatically eligible for subsidized child care programs, but the city’s benefits agency, the Human Resources Administration, doesn’t communicate eligibility information to the child care system—meaning that parents may need to go back and forth several times, seeking approval and documentation.

To make a real impact, Pringle says, DHS and ACS need to collaborate on a long-term plan to streamline enrollment for homeless families. Shelter staff should provide information about EarlyLearnNYC programs at every opportunity, including initial intake and case management meetings. EarlyLearnNYC programs should make presentations at shelters in their neighborhoods, and shelters should coordinate trips for parents to visit child care sites.

“The shelter system has a deep and lasting impact on kids,” Pringle says. The important question, she continues, is “how can it be a positive one? How can we better connect families, while they are in the shelter system, with the services they need