Giving a Strong Start to Young Children Experiencing Homelessness in Philadelphia

J.J. Cutuli

J.J. Cutuli

Families and homeless shelters in Philadelphia will get a new service to help young children participate in high-quality early childhood education thanks to a $1.48 million grant over three years from The Vanguard Strong Start for Kids Program™ to People’s Emergency Center (PEC),  in collaboration with J.J. Cutuli, an assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University–Camden, and the Philadelphia Office of Homeless Services.

With Vanguard’s support, the new program will help family homeless shelters and early childhood educators in Philadelphia engage families to take advantage of early childhood programs, particularly ones of high quality like Head Start, Early Head Start, PHL Pre-K, and others. Additional work at the shelters will inform practices and policies with principles of child development and supporting resilience for young children. About 2,000 children under the age of six lived in Philadelphia family homeless shelters last year, accounting for the majority of the children in emergency housing.

According to several studies, it can be difficult for families in emergency housing to participate in early childhood programs because of challenges associated with homelessness, like residential mobility, separating from communities and loved ones, lack of transportation, and losing important documents needed to enroll their children. Working together, early childhood programs and emergency housing providers can reduce or remove these barriers, opening doors to high-quality early childhood education for young children in emergency housing.

“High-quality early childhood programs help children do well in life, even in contexts of homelessness and adversity,” says Cutuli, the Rutgers University–Camden researcher and a principal in designing the program. “Just because a family is homeless does not mean that they should be left out of the great things happening right now in Philadelphia with respect to early childhood education.”

The new program looks to build on gains in enrollment under the Building Early Links for Learning (BELL) initiative for preschool-age children, better support families with infants and toddlers, and assist families in identifying high quality early childhood programs.

PEC has a 45-year record of accomplishment in working with families in shelter and in leading collaborations like BELL and the Family Service Provider Network, among others.  PEC relies on the power of partnerships to improve the lives of families in shelter, according to Kathy Desmond, PEC’s President.

“PEC is grateful to Vanguard for the commitment and investment they have made to improving kindergarten readiness for the city’s most vulnerable children and is proud to partner with them as we continue the work we began two years ago with funding from the William Penn Foundation.  By connecting families, shelters, early childhood programs, and researchers, we can make a lasting positive impact on the lives of children experiencing homelessness.”

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