Perhaps the most tangible and troubling indicators of these difficult times is the rise in homelessness among American families. According to an Associated Press report of January 2009, an estimated 2 million children are at risk of homelessness because of foreclosures, layoffs and the difficulties of making financial ends meet in this tough economy. In Maryland, there are now an estimated 9,600 homeless people living in our state. That number reflects a 20% increase between 2005 and 2007. We can safely assume that today’s economy will push that number higher.
This increased homelessness brings to light a reality that some Americans have lived for many years. Until recently, the popular face of homelessness was that of a man dressed in many layers of clothing, unkempt and sleeping on a heating grate. Beyond this stereotype of down-on-their luck homelessness, are whole other populations of homeless people including veterans, entire family units, teenagers, and the rural poor.. People arrive at a state of homelessness by various means. Lack of affordable housing, medical problem, availability of jobs, and limited access to addiction treatment programs, are four reasons why people end up homeless. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, there are more than 671,000 homeless people living in these United States.
While all homeless people must struggle to regain a footing in life, preschool children are among the most vulnerable of all groups of homeless people. Preschoolers are often born or become homeless shortly after their birth. The fate of these preschoolers is extremely important to our society when we consider the importance of learning during the earliest years of childhood. Providing a strong foundation for school readiness sets the stage for a lifetime of potential achievement. In a recent report Enriching Children, Enriching the Nation, published by the Foundation for Child Development, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and The Pew Charitable Trust, author Robert G. Lynch cited the overarching importance of high-quality early childcare and education as a key factor to establishing a lifetime of intellectual, social and economic benefits.: “…Investing in high-quality [programs] is an effective public policy strategy that produces a wide array of significant benefits for children, their families, and society as a whole.” The study further speaks to the importance of early education among at-risk children, citing the “need for less remedial education, and special education, and are less likely to require child welfare service.” article (pp. 5-6).
The Ark Preschool in Baltimore is all too familiar with the plight of homeless children. Operating under the auspices of Episcopal Community Services of Maryland, The Ark is the only state accredited preschool for homeless children in Baltimore City. The Ark has served homeless children since 1990. Over the years, the program has evolved from one of a safe haven to a program of high quality educational teachers and curriculum. This shift reflects more recent educational research that clearly shows the importance of school readiness and its value as the foundation for a lifetime of successful learning and citizenship. Without access to a high quality education, homeless preschoolers will not be prepared to enter kindergarten as expressive, curious, and ready-to-learn children. Without a strong early childhood education, many of these children will continue to lag behind and eventually languish in our public schools. The Ark’s work is made possible by its close partnerships with area shelters, hospitals, businesses, and faith communities that provide medical services, direct volunteer service, and financial support. Among the key partners are Mercy Medical Center, The United Way of Central Maryland, Loyola College and The Johns Hopkins Medical Institution.
Guided by state licensing rules, The Ark can serve a maximum of 20 children at a time. Given that there are an estimated 1,860-3,700 homeless children under the age of eight in Baltimore, very few homeless children have access to the high quality educational programs they need to become ready to enter Maryland’s public school system. Source: www. Baltimorestation.org/issues/homelessness). While The Ark’s services can be replicated, it takes a commitment of money, community partnerships, and a highly professional teaching staff to operate a successful preschool for homeless children.
In its publication Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten for All. A Cost-Benefit Analysis for the State of Maryland (Towson University RESI Research and Consulting, October 2007), the authors cite the broad positive socio and economic impact of the providing universal pre-K in Maryland. The consideration of universal Pre-K is based on the documented long-term benefits of quality Pre-K education makes on a child’s life.
We must realize the potential long-term impact of this current economic state on the future of all children, including the homeless children living in Baltimore City, its surrounding metropolitan areas, and the rural areas of Maryland. As our national leaders make decisions about our future, they hold the key to the quality of the future for those children who do not have a bed of their own.