Cuts to Kansas shelters highlight unique needs of children experiencing homelessness

By Emily Fetsch
November 25, 2019

Funding challenges faced by the Topeka Rescue Mission and Lawrence Community Shelter have led to cuts in their services. These cuts include the shelter capacity in Lawrence being halved, as well as the Topeka Rescue Mission temporarily closing its child care program for homeless youth. These closures affect not just adults, but children and families as well.

In 2018, 773 people in families and 133 unaccompanied youth experienced homelessness in Kansas on a given night. While the number of people in families experiencing homelessness has decreased, the number of individual youths has increased.

Children and families made up roughly 40 percent of the total number of people experiencing homelessness in Kansas in 2018 (2,216). People in families are more likely to be sheltered compared with single individuals (99 percent vs 76 percent). However, the long-term effect of homelessness on children, whether sheltered or unsheltered, can be devastating.

While a smaller number of children and families experience homelessness on any given night, more than 9,000 school-aged, public school enrolled children were homeless in school year 2016-2017, more than 1,000 of whom were unaccompanied children, according to the National Center for Homeless Education. A strong majority of these children are housed by living with another family (80.6 percent in school year 2016-2017). Because children and families are more likely to rely on non-shelter residences, the number of children experiencing homelessness is often underestimated

Housing insecurity, including homelessness, puts children at risk for exposure to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). According to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, “children living in poverty, including those experiencing homelessness, are more likely to carry high ACE scores, increasing their risk of developmental challenges and poor health and functioning.” Economic hardship is itself an ACE, but economic hardships such as homelessness can make children and families more likely to experience others, such as “physical and emotional abuse, financial exploitation, and sex-trafficking.”

Research shows adverse childhood experiences, common to those living in poverty and experiencing homelessness, literally change the structure of children’s brains. Those changes make children less resilient and more likely to develop chronic health conditions, as well as experience violence, addiction, and negative social consequences. 

Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child makes clear that addressing child and family poverty and homelessness saves money in the long run:

“Policies and programs that identify and support children and families who are most at risk for experiencing toxic stress as early as possible will reduce or avoid the need for more costly and less effective remediation and support programs down the road.”

Unfortunately, programs that help families experiencing poverty, while also preventing homelessness and exposure to ACEs, are too difficult for many to access. Barriers in state law restrict the help available to those in need, despite knowledge about how to fix the problem. During the upcoming legislative session, Kansas Action for Children will be focused on removing those barriers and improving the well-being of our state’s families.

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