Written by Kesha Lynch, MSW, Senior Case Coordinator, Mecklenburg County CDSA
When early intervention professionals hear the term “natural environment” as it relates to supporting children and families, settings such as the family’s home, park, playground, or child care center may come to mind. But what does “home” really mean? What happens when we are working with a family and discover that their idea of “home” is not the same as ours? We encounter families living in so many different versions of “home,” and there are too many examples to try to name a few. What would go through your mind if you found out a family was homeless, and how would you prepare to meet with the family for the first time?
Earlier this year, our staff at the Mecklenburg County CDSA had the opportunity to listen as two local agencies discussed needs in our community and services available to families experiencing homelessness. Representing a community resource agency and an emergency housing assistance program, the speakers defined “homelessness” as a symptom of extreme poverty and the difficulty of finding affordable housing for those with limited incomes. The National Health Care for the Homeless Council gives a really detailed definition of homelessness according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and it includes many aspects of unstable living conditions that may not always involve an individual/family living in a shelter. As I sat listening to the alarming statistics regarding children and families impacted by homelessness in our state and local communities, I wondered, how many families are my colleagues and I currently serving that meet the criteria of being homeless or are at risk for homelessness?
The National Center on Family Homelessness publishes annual national data that have consistently revealed that homelessness, overcrowding, and housing instability have been linked to a wide range of adverse outcomes for children, including increased risk for overall developmental delays, in addition to physical and/or mental health related problems. Here at EI Excellence, our readers were reminded of the myth that They’re Too Little for This to Affect Them….Right? to raise awareness of the effects of toxic stress on even the youngest kids. There are so many things that we can do to help provide support to families in need, and if you need something to help guide you, remember that if you’re Lost? Use an Eco-map! You’ll not only find information about the family’s needs, but also their strengths, which always has to come first.
Once you know where to get started with a family, here are some things to help you figure out what to do next.
- Virginia’s Early Intervention Strategies for Success Blog touches on some great points when thinking about the fact that Basic Needs Come First….Early Intervention Comes Second. Not sure what to do if a family is in crisis, especially if you’re not a social worker or family counselor? Check out some other ideas related to Working with Families in Crisis.
- Establishing an interagency support system with community agencies is a critical component in working with children and families impacted by poverty. By doing so, the early intervention program is able to increase public awareness, help identify other children in need of early intervention services, and develop successful partnerships with service providers to better assist families in to identifying and prioritizing their needs.
- Keep in mind that we still need to be using reflective questions to determine priorities and concerns for families. Drs. M’Lisa Shelton and Dathan Rush have shared their Roadmap to Reflection tools to help staff better approach having these difficult, and perhaps uncomfortable, conversations with families who are experiencing challenges as a result of living in poverty.
- Be aware of what the research continues to emphasize about the benefits of supporting children and families within their natural environments, particularly during everyday routines and activities. Since the inception of federally funded state early intervention programs, services have primarily been carried out in the family’s home, wherever that may be. The side-by-side comparison in Seven Key Principles: Looks Like / Doesn’t Look Like gives concrete examples (based on research) of how we should be reflecting a collaborative, family-centered approach while working with the family in their natural environment.
Although it is important for providers to understand the definition of homelessness and the associated developmental risk factors for children impacted by this national crisis, we must suspend judgment about what we think the priorities should be for a family experiencing economic hardships and learn to recognize the strengths of every family. No one family is the same as another, and each will have different strengths related to available supports and their ability to manage and access resources when dealing with a crisis, such as unemployment, lack of affordable housing, domestic violence, or the potential risk of becoming homeless. We need to be able to meet families wherever they are, both physically and through early intervention supports. Building positive and respectful relationships is critical when supporting families who are experiencing homelessness. “We rise by lifting others.” – Robert Ingersoll
What community supports and resources have you encountered to address the comprehensive needs of a family experiencing housing instability? Share your ideas here so everyone can work together to better support children and families!