Caring for an infant is both enchanting and exhausting under any circumstances, but for families experiencing homelessness, the normal anxiety over a young child’s well-being is compounded by other worries: Where will we sleep, eat and play? Will my child be taken if I can’t provide a stable home?
Child-development experts have found that homelessness is one of many types of trauma known as adverse childhood experiences that affect a child’s health and life outcomes decades into the future. In cities such as Greenville, where rapid growth has led to a shortage of affordable housing, the problem — while deeply personal for each family — affects the whole community.
In 2018, the Community Foundation of Greenville awarded a Margaret Linder Southern Endowment grant to the Bradshaw Institute for Community Child Health & Advocacy. The $34,323 grant was to launch a place-based project tackling child homelessness in Greenville. Now nearing completion, the Childhood Homelessness Project will use census data and information gleaned from residents and service providers to map potential early indicators of housing instability and identify family-focused solutions. The project, under the broader work of the Greenville County Care Coordination Collaborative at Prisma Health Children’s Hospital’s Bradshaw Institute for Community Child Health & Advocacy, uses the expertise from member organizations working in Greenville.
“The Bradshaw Institute views this project as a crucial initiative because we know homelessness and housing insecurity can have a profound negative impact on a child’s health and optimal well-being,” said Dr. Kerry Sease, a pediatrician and medical director of the Bradshaw Institute.
Leading this phase of the project is the Institute for Child Success, a private, nonpartisan research and policy organization that works to create a culture that fosters the success of all children. Upon completion, ICS and the Bradshaw Institute will produce a white paper summarizing the work to share their findings, providing a child-focused assessment of community housing and other social needs.
Megan Carolan, ICS’s director of policy research, said children are at greatest risk of homelessness during the first year of their lives. Carolan cited several sources, including a multisite U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development study that found rates of sheltered homelessness to be higher for infants and other preschool children than for any other age group: 0.8% of infants younger than 12 months and 0.7% of children 1–5 years of age stayed in shelters and transitional housing programs over the course of the year.
“Families are so at risk during that first year, and it’s unfathomable raising a child in a shelter,” Carolan said. “For this study, we tried to determine how many are at risk, and what the challenges are in each community. Then we looked at best practices for policies that worked in other places to develop recommendations that are grounded in reality.”
ICS President Jamie Moon said while many nonprofits provide essential services in times of need, ICS focuses on offering evidence-based solutions to be applied at a systemic level to prevent problems before they occur.
“Human capital begins at birth, and the majority of brain development occurs in the first five years,” Moon said. “From both an ethical and a practical standpoint it’s better for society to commit resources earlier.”
Together with other groups and individuals, ICS was instrumental in bringing about an expansion of the South Carolina Nurse-Family Partnership by $30 million over four years. The program, which pairs nurses with high-risk, first-time mothers during pregnancy through the child’s first year, has been shown to improve outcomes for children while saving public benefit costs. Another example of ICS’s collaborative efforts is Gov. Henry McMaster’s plan to provide an additional $53 million to expand 4-year-old kindergarten throughout the state.
“ICS is a leader in efforts to strengthen the early-childhood system in Greenville and throughout South Carolina,” said Bob Morris, president of the Community Foundation. “The governor’s recent proposal to expand access to 4K and increase infant and toddler services is evidence that ICS’s nonpartisan research and policy work is making a difference. Corporate and civic leaders as well as policymakers are embracing the importance of strong early-childhood care and education, a development catalyzed by the work of ICS and its partners.”