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Being homeless for more than six months can significantly damage children's health - study

Although the study is US-based, many factors of it still ring true for those children who are homeless in Ireland.

File photo
File photo
Image: Shutterstock/Amir Bajrich

EXPERIENCING HOMELESSNESS AT any time during the pre- or post-natal period can negatively affect a young child’s health, a new US-based study has found. 

Researchers from the Boston Medical Center found that children who experienced both pre- and post-natal homelessness and those who experienced homelessness for longer than six months were at the highest risk of negative health outcomes. 

20,000 low-income caregivers of children under the age of four who visited outpatient pediatric clinics in five cities across the US between 2009 and 2015 were interviewed for the study.

The researchers asked questions to determine if a child experienced homelessness, how long they experienced homelessness, and when in the child’s life they experienced homelessness.

They also conducted an assessment of the child, determining if the child had been hospitalised, if they were over or underweight, and if they had experienced any developmental delays. 

More than 3% of caregivers reported experiencing pre-natal homelessness, 3.7% reported post-natal homelessness and 3.5% reported both. 

The study found that children who experienced homelessness for more than six months were at high risk of poor health outcomes.

Also at high risk were children who experienced homelessness during both the pre- and post-natal period, showing that the earlier and longer into development a child experiences homelessness may have a larger cumulative toll of poor health and development outcomes. 

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, June Tinsley, head of advocacy at Barnardos said that many young children who are experiencing homelessness are at risk of missing out on key developmental milestones. 

“Having no space to play or crawl around means they often miss out on crawling, young infants might miss out on tummy time, those kinds of key issues,” Tinsley said. 

Homeless children in Ireland

Although we haven’t had a study of this size in Ireland, research has been published through the years about homeless children in Ireland, and many factors of the US study still ring true for those children who are homeless here.

Figures released last week show that there were 6,024 adults and 3,867 children in emergency accommodation during the week of 23-29 July.

Reiterating her above point, Tinsley said: “[Homelessness] impacts on their physical development. It can impact on their speech development and their communication skills.”

A study from Focus Ireland last year outlined that many children living in emergency accommodation in Ireland are living off frozen food and takeaways due to a lack of cooking and storage facilities. 

Homeless families reported supplementing their diets with noodles, instant pasta, chicken, chips and pizza.

Speaking at the time of the report launch, Michelle Share, one of the authors, said: “It’s not just about food and nutrition. Families have to rely on takeaways and convenience foods. 

It makes it harder for children to develop good eating habits as they have to eat in socially unacceptable circumstances, like dining on the bed, or on the floor, lined up at a counter and sometimes even under CCTV surveillance.
They get used to dining in communal settings or with tourists – rather than as a family around the table. All of this means a loss of dignity.

And, in terms of the mental health impact homelessness has on children, Tinsley listed numerous effects it can have. 

“For a young infant, that can mean being very clingy, being very fretful and just being surrounded by that sense of uncertainty of where they’re going to live permanently and the impact of not having a stable home,” she said. 

With regards to older children, she said that feelings of confusion, anxiety, helplessness and shame are also common. 

Adding to those comments, Mike Allen, director of advocacy at Focus Ireland told TheJournal.ie that “people tend to think of mental health issues causing homelessness”, adding that while it’s not always the case, “there’s much evidence that homelessness causes mental health”. 

“That’s why speedy intervention, particularly to help children… we think it should be prioritised,” he said. 

The researchers of the US study said that the findings “help us determine which children are at greatest risk, and makes the argument that policymakers and providers intervene to change the trajectory of a child’s development”. 

Similarly, Tinsley said that there needs to be greater efforts made in Ireland to prevent families from falling into homelessness. 

She said it is important that any families experiencing homelessness have access to key support workers so they can work directly with children who are adversely affected. 

The study, conducted by researchers at Children’s HealthWatch in the Boston Medical Center, was published in the Pediatrics journal. 

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