Tamina attended first-grade in a Harlem public school. She was homeless most of that year. Her mother lost the apartment after she lost her job. Sometimes they stayed with relatives but mostly Tamina, her mother and her sister slept in shelters where they could never stay very long. They carried their belongings in thick black garbage bags, protection from the weather. Tamina used to have a teddy bear, but it got left in a shelter and her mother was ‘too tired’ to go back for it. Tamina never got it back.
Tamina had very little. Other children had a home, their own bed, place for their stuff, more stuff. So she stole. Mostly small things: erasers, crayons, hair-pins. Things she could hide in her pockets and later in her black garbage bag. If confronted, Tamina would furiously demand it “was always hers.” I suspected she often believed it and wondered if some items resembled things she once had and owning them was a link to a time when life was less overwhelming. Beyond an overall language delay, Tamina seemed confused about concepts like the difference between possessing and owning: in some shelters cots were ‘first-come-first-serve’ and while you had it, it was ‘yours’ even if it did not remain so for long. You had to ‘watch’ your stuff or have it disappear. Why could an unattended eraser not be ‘hers’?
While children often crave things that are not theirs, Tamina’s stealing was possibly about unmet needs. Her mother was “always mad and cussing” and Tamina could not rely on her for support. Children whose ‘hungers’ are neglected seek other ways: become secretive, dissociate, numb themselves with substances, steal, hoard. These behaviors often further distance them from care and social support, when they in fact communicate confusion, loneliness, anger, loss, and shame.
[The above is an excerpt from “Communicating Trauma” Routledge, 2015]
Homelessness does not necessarily mean neglect, but the realities and causes of homelessness pose many risks, especially to children. In addition to loss and grief, there are increased health and safety risks, along with reduced access to care. Children without homes suffer insecurity, and their caregivers may be too overwhelmed to attend to their emotional needs. Depression, posttraumatic stress, illness, disability, poverty, domestic violence and other life-crises are all too common among parents of homeless children. Any one of these factors can overwhelm a parent and reduce their availability, let alone when such factors combine.
Having no place to call home–in all the forms it takes–can be distressing and occupying. It leaves children anxious and unavailable for learning. Homeless children are often wary and worried, angry or withdrawn. They are three times as likely to require special-education, four times as likely to drop out of school, and almost nine times as likely to repeat grades.
Homelessness devastates. It is crucial we work together to understand it and resolve it as well as support families in crisis and address risk factors before they reach a loss of home, hearth, and heart.