Start Early. Start well.

August 04, 2023

Homelessness Is Traumatic for Families and Children. This Shelter's Plan to Help: Provide Child Care

Ashley Flater, executive director of MICAH House, at the construction site of the Florence M. Lakin Child Development CenterAshley Flater, executive director of the MICAH House homeless shelter in Council Bluffs, Iowa, where a 12,000-square-foot, $8 million child care facility is under construction and set to open in fall 2024. MICAH House still needs more than $2 million to meet its fundraising goal. Flater said they've learned that child care may be the key to breaking the cycle of homelessness for many of their parents.
By Erin Duffy 

For families experiencing homelessness, it’s easy to get stuck in a loop of hardship and instability. 

Without reliable, affordable child care, parents can’t get a job. Without a job, they can’t secure housing. Without quality child care, children lack the developmental support they need.  

“It just feels like a never-ending cycle,” said Ashley Flater, the executive director of the MICAH House homeless shelter in Council Bluffs, Iowa.  

MICAH House wants to break that cycle by providing its clients with a valuable resource: on-site, high-quality child care. The shelter, which serves single women and families from Iowa and Nebraska, is currently building the Florence M. Lakin Child Development Center.  

“A lot of our kids in the shelter are experiencing developmental delays and social-emotional delays,” Flater said. “So really figuring out what is the best type of environment that's going to help them grow and thrive is a huge priority for us.” 

The 12,000-square-foot, $8 million child care facility is under construction and scheduled to open in fall 2024. MICAH House still needs more than $2 million to meet its fundraising goal.  

The child care center will have capacity for 70 children ranging in age from 6 weeks to 6 years.  

Shelter clients will receive priority, but there will also be room for children who live in the surrounding community where child care shortages are all too real. In Pottawattamie County, where MICAH House is located, there is one available child care slot for every seven to 10 children.  

Many parents know that child care is expensive and tough to find. MICAH House families face additional barriers: they typically have little money. They may not have a car or reliable transportation. Their own experiences with childhood abuse can make it difficult to leave their children with strangers.  

“By having a child care center that is literally right next door, they don’t have to worry about transportation,” Flater said. “They also don’t have to worry about access, because families at MICAH House will be prioritized to receive care. This is exactly what families need to get back on track and back on their feet.”  

One 30-year-old mother staying at the shelter has been trying in vain to find a provider who has room for both her 2-year-old daughter and 4-month-old son. She’s caught in the loop Flater described: she’s looking for retail jobs but can’t commit until she knows her children have care.  

“I don’t have family out here,” she said. “I can’t say, ‘Mom, take them.’”  

“The only problem I have is child care,” she said. “If I get that soon enough, I can get myself a job right away … I miss having my own place.”  

Families will pay for care based on their income, and MICAH House clients will have the option of staying enrolled even after they find housing and leave the shelter.  

Young children are especially vulnerable to becoming homeless. SchoolHouse Connection estimated that more than 1 million children ages 6 and under experienced homelessness in 2020–21.  

In 2022, MICAH House served 728 people, 351 of them children. And as Americans everywhere grapple with inflation and higher prices for food, housing, and transportation, families are staying longer. The average stay has climbed from 30 to 80 days.  

The Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska knows the importance of the early years—research shows that nearly 90% of brain growth takes place during the first five years of life.  

But during those formative years, housing instability—whether it’s living in a hotel room, on a couch, on the streets, or in a shelter—can take a profound toll on the mental and physical health of kids. That’s on top of whatever struggles led a family to homelessness—poverty, job loss, domestic violence, addiction, mental illness.  

Trauma is stress that floods “the entire biological system and its ability to respond in healthy ways,” said Kate Gallagher, the Buffett Institute’s director of evaluation and research. Gallagher serves on the MICAH House board of directors and previously worked with children experiencing trauma as an early childhood teacher and director.  

“Children carry the physical and emotional scars of early trauma through their lifetimes,” Gallagher said. “For example, when children experience the loss of a parent, they often struggle to feel safe and secure. When children experience inconsistent housing and food insecurity, they don't feel safe, and they might never feel they are going to have enough food.” 

What does trauma-informed child care look like?  

MICAH House is still fine-tuning the details of its program, but Flater said there will be an emphasis on trauma-informed care, space for children and families to meet with specialists, an outdoor play space and garden, and an indoor gym.  

Early educators should provide developmentally appropriate, language-rich, and loving care to all the children they serve, regardless of their housing situation.  

Children who have experienced trauma may need more specialized care, Gallagher said. They might need quiet, calm spaces to retreat to when they’re overstimulated. They need fresh air, nutritious food, and lots of playtime. They need to know that they can trust their teachers.  

“Teachers and parents need to provide instruction for children on emotional literacy—how you experience emotions, express emotions, understand emotions,” Gallagher said. “It’s OK to be angry, but it’s not OK to throw the milk across the room.” 

And parents and teachers need to establish warm, trusting relationships, too.  

“Having great child care, teachers who cheer Mom and Dad on and are there for the child, think how transformative that can be,” Gallagher said.  

Quality early childhood education can act as a buffer for these children—warm, secure relationships with caring adults can mitigate some of the stress they encounter.  

“You need quality, reliable care because these children have experienced one of the worst things that children can experience—being without stable housing,” Gallagher said.  

On a hot July afternoon, the mother at MICAH House took a deep breath and got ready to make more calls to child care programs.  

“At the end of the day, me as a mother, I have to do what I have to do,” she said. “I have no choice. They only have me.” 

Erin Duffy is the managing editor at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and writes about early childhood issues that affect children, families, educators, and communities. Previously, she spent more than a decade covering education stories and more for daily newspapers.      

Have a comment, a question, or a story idea? Reach Erin at    
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