By Claudia Boyd-Barrett
Homelessness has been a recurring theme in Nicole Coryell’s life.
As a teenager, Coryell — a Ventura resident — lived on the streets with her mom who was battling drug addiction, she said. Later, addicted to drugs herself, she spent two years sleeping on friends’ couches.
Now age 22 and living in a shelter, Coryell recently gave birth to a daughter of her own. Although statistically the odds are stacked against her, she said she’s determined to break the cycle of parental neglect, homelessness and instability that have marred her own life experience.
“I never got that mother-daughter bond,” she said, sadly, as she cradled her 2-month-old inside the kitchen of a home in Ventura for homeless pregnant women. “I want to change that.”
Families living in homelessness are commonly headed by people like Coryell: single moms in their twenties whose lives have been fraught with difficulties such as poverty, abuse and neglect, according to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Without intervention, their children are also likely to suffer. Research from the Network shows children who experience homelessness are at a much higher risk of suffering physical, academic, mental and emotional problems than children who have never been homeless. As adults, they’re also more likely to fall into homelessness themselves, advocates said.
“Children bear the brunt of homeless,” said Mary Kerrigan, a child psychotherapist and cofounder of Step Up Ventura, a nonprofit organization providing outreach to homeless parents and young children. “Homelessness is a trauma that is different than just poverty … The stress of not knowing whether you’re going to have a place to sleep that night, not knowing whether you’re going to be sheltered or outdoors that day — there’s just so much more anxiety and depression and uncertainty that goes with being homeless, even more so than being poor.”
California has one of the highest rates of child homelessness in the country. Each year, more than 500,000 children are homeless in the Golden State, accounting for about a fifth of the entire child homeless population in the United States, according to a report by the National Center on Family Homelessness. That translates to about one in 17 Californian children experiencing homelessness each year.
Many homeless families and children have suffered traumatic experiences such as violence or substance abuse in the home prior to being on the streets. Once homeless, they are vulnerable to further trauma, such as assault or abrupt separation from loved ones. Compounded with the stress of not having a place to live, and possible mental or other problems suffered by the parent, the situation can have a devastating effect on children’s wellbeing, Kerrigan said.
Figures from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network indicate that children are impacted physically, emotionally and mentally by homelessness. They get sick twice as often as other children, suffer twice as many ear infections and have four times the rate of asthma. They have twice the rate of learning disabilities and three times the rate of emotional and behavioral problems than non-homeless children, according to the network.
Half of school-age homeless children experience anxiety, depression or withdrawal, compared to 18 percent of non-homeless children. And by the time they turn 8 years old, one in three homeless children has a mental disorder, figures from the network show.
At Step Up Ventura, outreach workers are trying to address homelessness’ impact on children by intervening as early as possible. Each week, a two-person team visits with homeless families living in shelters or transitional living facilities and who have children ages 0 to 5. They assess the children to see if they are developing properly, and teach parents skills for coping with stress and for building strong and healthy relationships with their children. The program, free to the parents, is funded through donations and small grants from local nonprofits.
On a recent afternoon social worker Mimi Nelson Oliver and child development specialist Maria McDaniels met with Coryell and her daughter, Jasmine. They brought with them a cart full of books, toys and parenting worksheets.
Much of the session focused on Coryell and how she was dealing with the challenge of looking for a job, finding housing and figuring out childcare.
“I’m really, really, really stressing out right now,” said Coryell, explaining that she had about a month to find a job and secure a permanent place to live before she had to move out of the shelter.
Oliver and McDaniels reassured Coryell that she was making progress and that her baby was doing well. Together, they went over strategies for what Coryell could do when she felt overwhelmed: stop, take a deep breath and consciously choose a different reaction, or distract herself by going for a walk.
McDaniels explained that homeless moms tend to be in a survival state, chronically worrying about their situation, which can in turn make their babies’ anxious. Teaching moms coping strategies helps create a more secure environment for their children, allowing them to develop normally, she said.
“What the mom feels, the child feels. Mom is a mirror,” McDaniels said. “The calmer the mom is, the more the needs of the mom are met, the calmer the baby.”
Kerrigan, who manages the program, said she hopes children helped by the intervention will be less susceptible to the problems associated with child homelessness, such as mental health challenges and learning disabilities.
“Research shows that if you do any kind of intervention focusing on the parent-child relationship very, very early on that it really helps the child later,” she said. “Those are just precious months of development that we wanted to be able to help with.”