Expanding Early Care and Education for Children Experiencing Homelessness

Homeless child on sidewalk with no shoes

Ensuring the early learning and development of our country's youngest children is essential to ACF's work. Supporting the well-being of these young children and their families is an urgent task and one that is critical to improving the long-term educational outcomes of children nationwide.

Families experiencing homelessness aren’t just without housing. Many are affected by trauma, including domestic violence, physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Homelessness itself can also be a traumatic experience. For young children, research has shown that toxic stress affects brain development, particularly in the earliest years from birth to age three when rapid brain development and wiring lays the foundation for future social, emotional, physical and cognitive development.

Joint Guidance Document on Meeting the Needs of Families with Young Children Experiencing and At Risk of Homelessness

Head Start

The Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act was signed into law in December 2007; in part, this act required the identification as well as the categorical eligibility and prioritization of children and families experiencing homelessness in both Head Start and Early Head Start programs. The 2016 Head Start Program Performance Standards (HSPPS) include several standards (aligned with McKinney-Vento and ESSA) addressing barriers to enrollment for children experiencing homelessness. Since then, the Office of Head Start has developed a number of resources which are now available Visit disclaimer page .

The Child Care and Development Fund

In 2014, the Child Care and Development Block Grant was reauthorized (P.L. 113-186) by strong bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate. The new law requires states to develop their own strategies to better serve homeless children and calls for:

  • Outreach to homeless families with children,
  • Training and technical assistance on identifying and serving homeless children and their families,
  • The coordination of services so that families with children can get the help that they need,
  • A grace period or flexibility to obtain immunizations and other documents needed so that homeless children can be served more quickly, and
  • Data reporting so that the number of homeless children who receive child care services is known.

The CCDF Plans offer a snapshot into current and planned efforts, initiatives and implementation plans for each State/Territory over the next two years through September 30, 2021. An introductory brief and a chart of submitted activities related to homelessness can be found below.

Read the Introductory Brief (PDF).

Homeless Families with Young Children FY2019-FY2021 Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) State Plans can be found here (PDF).


See Highlights from multiple states (PDF).

Several federal policies and programs are in place to strengthen the ability of early care and education (ECE) providers to serve young children experiencing homelessness. Whether you are in a Head Start program, early childhood program, or work at the state level on early childhood systems and services, the resources listed below will assist you in ensuring that these young children are prioritized for services that support their learning and development.

The Office of Child Care developed additional resources for states Visit disclaimer page .

Resource Guides

  • This Self-Assessment Tool for Early Childhood Programs Serving Families Experiencing Homelessness (PDF) has been specifically designedCover photo of the homelessness tool for families experiencing homelessness for child care, Head Start and Early Head Start, and public pre-k programs as a guide for welcoming and supporting families and children experiencing homelessness into these programs. Early care and education providers play a critical role in identifying and supporting families with young children who are experiencing homelessness and connecting those families to other resources within their community. Being exposed to a safe, stable, and developmentally appropriate environment while young is important to healthy child development.

  • The Early Childhood Self-Assessment Tool for Family Shelters is specifically designed to guide family shelter staff as they create a safe and developmentally appropriate environment for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers.  This guide was originally developed in 2014 and recently updated in 2020. The Early Childhood Self-Assessment Tool for Shelters was validated through research and revised with the input of early childhood experts. The revision has a wealth of resources and information for shelters to support infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and families experiencing homelessness.

  • The Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) and the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) released the Early Childhood Self-Assessment Tool for Family Supportive Housing – A Guide to Support the Safe, Healthy Development of Young Children. (PDF) Supportive housing for families with young children is an ideal environment to increase parent/caregiver understanding of howECD Self Assessment Tool for Family Supportive Housing graphic they can positively impact early learning. Being exposed to a safe, stable, and developmentally appropriate environment while young is important to healthy child development. This new tool contains suggestions for making supportive housing, both scattered site and single site, safe and developmentally appropriate for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers.

  • Supporting Children's Social Emotional Well Being in MA Homeless Shelters (PDF) - In the last quarter of 2013, homeless shelters across Massachusetts were overwhelmed by an influx of young families.1 Public agency managers from the Departments of Early Education and Care (EEC), Public Health (DPH) and Housing and Community Development (DHCD) mobilized together to help shelters manage, and to reduce the impact on children from instability, trauma and high-stress. Agency managers pooled financial resources from an infusion of Race To the Top funding and intervened to help shelter staff communicate and lead in ways that benefited young children and their families in the short-term, and contributed to children’s positive outcomes over the long-term.

  • Tool: Aligning Early Childhood Programs to Serve Children Experiencing Homelessness. (PDF) A chart comparing preschool, Head Start, and child care policies for children experiencing homelessness. Organized by topic area, this chart compares effective dates; funding levels; definitions; eligibility; eligibility determinations; outreach and identification; enrollment; continuity/stability; transportation; collaborations; referrals; and family engagement. This publication was written in collaboration with the Office of Early Childhood Development at the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

  • Access to Early Childhood Development Services for Homeless Families with Young Children: An Exploratory Project (PDF)that examines the challenges of families with young children and how they manage daily life and child development when they experience episodes of homelessness, including times when they temporarily live doubled-up or in a hotel or motel due to a loss of housing or economic hardship.


Early Childhood Homelessness State Profiles Report cover, includes the U. S. Department of Education Seal


The updated Early Childhood Homelessness in the United States (PDF) Visit disclaimer page : 50-State Profile provides a snapshot of early childhood data available for children who are experiencing homelessness. It includes publicly available data for 2017-2018.


  • The updated Early Childhood Homelessness in the United States: 50-State Profile (PDF)provides a snapshot of early childhood data available for children who are experiencing homelessness. It includes publicly available data for 2014-2015. The updated profile also includes two new related factors: the percentage of families experiencing a high housing cost burden and the percentage of low-income working families with young children under 6.

  • The Guide to Developmental and Behavioral Screening (PDF) for housing and shelter providers addresses the importance of developmental and behavioral screening, how to talk to parents, where to go for help, and how to select the most appropriate screening tool for the population served as well as the provider implementing the screening.
  • Head Start Interactive Homelessness Lessons provide Head Start, Early Head Start, and Migrant and Seasonal programs information about serving families who are experiencing homelessness, including eligibility and enrollment requirements. The lessons highlight outreach and identification strategies, evaluate positive options for working with families, and identify ways to work with community partners.

Policies and Guidance

Additional Resources


Important Information about Access to Care for Young Children and Their Families Experiencing Homelessness

Read these two briefs to learn about access to early care and education for young children and their families who are experiencing homelessness and the challenges states and communities face in using data to identify these children.

SchoolHouse Connection Visit disclaimer page
SchoolHouse Connection promotes success for children and youth experiencing homelessness, birth through higher education. SHC engages in policy advocacy and provides technical assistance to states and local communities.

National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) Visit disclaimer page
NAEH works to prevent and end homelessness by being a leading voice on federal homelessness policy, providing capacity building assistance to communities turning policy into practice, and by advancing data and research around solutions to homelessness.

National Association for the Education Of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) Visit disclaimer page
NAEHCY is an organization dedicated to the education of children and youth experiencing homelessness. NAEHCY accomplishes this through advocacy, partnerships, and education.

National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE) Visit disclaimer page
Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, NCHE provides research, resources, and information enabling communities to address the educational needs of children experiencing homelessness.

National Law Center On Homelessness And Poverty Visit disclaimer page
The mission of the Law Center is to prevent and end homelessness by serving as the legal arm of the nationwide movement to end homelessness.

U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) Visit disclaimer page
USICH coordinates the federal response to homelessness and creates a national partnership at every level of government and with the private sector to reduce and end homelessness in the nation while maximizing the effectiveness of the federal government in contributing to the end of homelessness.

ZERO TO THREE Visit disclaimer page
ZERO TO THREE's "Starting Life Without a Home" video calls attention to the negative effects of family homelessness upon the developmental needs of young children.

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