City Must Give Homeless Families Access to Childcare

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Crayon Test I by Paul Stein

Crayon Test I by Paul Stein

Since moving into a family homeless shelter in Harlem, a Brooklyn mom and dad have watched their 3-year-old daughter struggle. “There used to be times when I couldn’t even get her to be quiet,” the father says. Now, “she just shuts down.” Desperate to keep her from losing even more ground, her parents have enrolled her in a nearby daycare they learned about on the street, paying with a big chunk of the wages from the mother’s graveyard shift at McDonald’s.

But it doesn’t have to be like this for New York City’s homeless families. Over the past two years, the city has spent close to $500 million to create EarlyLearnNYC, one of the nation’s most ambitious taxpayer-subsidized child care programs for just such low-income families. The goal: Give their babies and toddlers the kind of enriching, high-quality early education that wealthier kids enjoy, at a cost that doesn’t bust hard-pressed family budgets. Coupled with the city’s new, free universal pre-k program, EarlyLearn has the potential to be a game changer for the city’s most vulnerable kids, many of whom have traditionally received dismal early education.

The reality, however, is that because of poor communication and bureaucratic bungling, many families who need the program most—including those in the city’s sprawling homeless shelter system—never even hear that subsidized child care exists. The result is a sad combination of wasted funds and squandered opportunities, with thousands of EarlyLearn slots sitting empty.

It’s hard to imagine children who need EarlyLearn more urgently than homeless kids do. According to the Department of Homeless Services, nearly 19,000 children age 5 years old and younger (enough to overflow the seats in Barclays Center) spent time in a New York City shelter during the city’s last fiscal year. By the last estimate, the average length of stay in a family shelter was 427 days—a developmental lifetime for a baby or toddler. Affordable high-quality child care would have enormous benefits for these kids and their stressed-out parents.

Most families in shelters automatically qualify for spots in EarlyLearn child care centers, yet DHS and the homeless shelters they oversee fail almost universally to steer parents toward them. In research for the latest issue of Child Welfare Watch, published by the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School, we and our colleague Evan Pellegrino learned that many homeless parents may have no idea that a high-quality, low-cost, city-funded EarlyLearn program may be down the street from their family’s shelter.

The fix for these problems is both simple and cheap: The agencies that run EarlyLearn, homeless shelters, and federal benefits programs (the Administration for Children’s Services, DHS, and Human Resources Administration, respectively) need to do a better job of talking to each other. Homeless shelter operators, who—quite understandably—spend more time thinking about finding permanent housing for their clients than about early childhood development, need to be informed of EarlyLearn programs and their importance. EarlyLearn providers must be required to reach out to families in homeless shelters, offering their invaluable services to the city’s neediest kids.

These efforts can’t be one-off projects at individual programs, says Jennifer Pringle, who runs a state-funded project to improve education for homeless kids. “It has to come from the leadership,” she says. “The city must step up.”

If it does, it will make a real difference in children’s lives.