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State must do more for homeless kids

On the first day of my first full-time job as a preschool teacher, I walked into a beautiful building full of beautiful children and I was ready to take on the world.

The human resources manager welcomed me to the agency and then turned on an orientation video and left the room. It was during that video that I learned about a 4-year-old who lived in an abandoned building infested with rats and a mother whose three children slept in the back seat of her car while she stayed awake to make sure they were safe all night. I cried my whole first week.

I knew a little bit about homelessness before going into teaching. The summer before, I had interned at a family homeless shelter in Brooklyn, N.Y., where I learned about the lack of affordable housing for families with low incomes, housing discrimination tactics that disproportionately impacted people of color, and overcrowded shelters with waiting lists longer than six months. I had met families living in hard situations, but never had I imagined small children and their families living in the conditions I saw in that video.

Since then, I’ve learned a lot more about homelessness. I’ve learned that homelessness can mean living on the street, but it can also mean sleeping on a family member’s couch, living in substandard housing, or bouncing around from place to place. I’ve learned that a family who may qualify for assistance with housing may not actually be able to access that assistance. And I’ve learned that small children who experience homelessness can have actual differences in their brain makeup when compared to those who do not.

Homelessness can be startling when we see it, but it’s just as detrimental when it’s invisible. Eight years after that orientation video that changed my life, I continue to be overwhelmed when I think about young children experiencing homelessness, whether sleeping in a shelter, a car, or on a couch. I pledge to continue seeing those who feel that invisible burden. I know that we as a community can do better, and that homelessness doesn’t have to be a reality for over 15,500 small Michiganders.

That’s right. Over 15,500 kids younger than 4 are experiencing homelessness in our state. Recently, the Michigan League for Public Policy collaborated with Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan to release Homelessness in Early Childhood, a report that shows childhood homelessness in Michigan is not only on the rise, but that the rates are likely much higher than state data shows.

According to the report, the actual number of young kids experiencing homelessness in The Alpena News’ circulation area is fairly small, but, as a percent of total kids ages 0-4 by county, Presque Isle County is the only local county below the Michigan rate of 2.8%.

Presque Isle County’s rate is 2%, while Alpena County’s is 3.2%, Alcona County’s is 4.1%, and Montmorency 6.2%.

The state’s median rate for kids 4 and younger experiencing homelessness is 4.1%, but some counties have rates over 11%, meaning Alpena and its neighboring counties are still on the lower end of the scale. The counties with the highest percentage of young children who are homeless are rural, and include Alger, Lake, and Arenac counties. However, 75% of all young children experiencing homelessness live in urban areas of the state.

And I can tell you firsthand that even one child experiencing homelessness is too many.

As a Head Start preschool teacher, I was charged with serving the community’s most vulnerable children and families. My classroom averaged four children experiencing homelessness at a given time. That meant children who would come to school in the morning just to find a beanbag chair where they could safely and comfortably sleep, or who would eat four bowls of cereal and then put more in their pockets to take home after school.

It also meant children who were angry or worried and would act that out in their play and interactions with peers. Teaching letter recognition and one-to-one correspondence came second to teaching attachment and self-regulation skills. All children in my classroom, but especially the four living with the uncertainty of homelessness, needed a classroom where they could feel safe and at home.

The most important thing I’ve learned over the past eight years about small children experiencing homelessness is that they have loving, caring parents who do the very best they can to take care of their families. Policymakers need to do the very best they can to take care of these families as well. The report’s policy recommendations include improving data collection, supporting coordination of services, increasing access to early childhood education opportunities, and ending housing discrimination.

We hope the report will not only raise awareness of what these families are going through in Michigan, but inspire change through the recommendations we’ve made. Kids in our state are counting on us.

Sarah Ostyn is a Kids Count intern at the Michigan League for Public Policy.