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Several years ago, officials at Pathways, an Alabama-based nonprofit that provides services and shelter for women and children who are homeless, learned that their clients needed more than a safe, temporary home: They needed child care, too.

At the time, toddlers and preschoolers spent their days in adult shelters, sometimes with strangers, when their parents went on job interviews, to meetings or attended training sessions. Many parents didn’t know they could receive childcare through federally-funded options, like Head Start, or they lacked the resources needed to enroll their children and the transportation to take them to a center. Pathways officials considered offering a qualified babysitter to families, but quickly realized more was needed.

“We realized we can do way better than that,” said Casey Cunningham, development director at Pathways. “We can provide a high-quality, early childhood licensed child care environment, which is what we want all kids to have, but especially kids who are starting out with less.”

In November 2021, the Pathways Early Learning Center opened in the organization’s shelter in Birmingham, with the goal of providing immediate, stable and free child care to families experiencing homelessness. The center received initial funding for about half its budget from the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education, which also provides professional development on trauma, social and emotional learning and other early childhood topics. The department also offers frequent visits from coaches who work with the center’s five teachers.

During the first year of operation, Pathways’ center served 52 children between the ages of 8 weeks to 5-years -old in two classrooms staffed by teachers trained in trauma-informed care.

The approach is critical to working with a vulnerable population, Cunningham said. “It’s a shift from asking ‘What’s wrong?’ to ‘What happened to you?’” she said. “It’s assuming what I’m experiencing with this person, their behavior, is probably a result of trauma.”

Nationwide, more than 1 million children age 6 and under were homeless during the 2020-21 school year, according to data released in February by Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan, an initiative aimed at alleviating poverty, and SchoolHouse Connection, a nonprofit focused on homelessness and education. A little more than 4 percent of these children were enrolled in federal Head Start programs. The lack of child care serves as a barrier for homeless families and can prevent parents from accessing the resources that could be instrumental in launching their family into economic and housing stability.

Shelters are generally ill-equipped to support homeless families with young children, according to a 2021 report by Child Trends. While some housing programs and shelters have added wraparound services for families and access to child care, many fail to connect families to much-needed child care and are often not built to support the needs of families with young children.

While Cunningham hopes the Pathways model will spread, she acknowledged there are challenges to establishing child care within shelters, a service that is still relatively rare nationwide. States have strict regulations for licensed centers, including space and safety requirements and access to playgrounds. Before opening, Pathways had to build a new bathroom for children and establish an agreement with a nearby church to provide playground space.

Despite the challenges, Cunningham has seen immense benefits for children who can finally access high-quality child care. Many of the children who attend Pathways’ center come in showing signs of trauma and are behind in language skills. “It’s a huge impact on the children to have that stability,” she said. Pathways officials also help parents apply for child care vouchers so they can transition to other child care, including state funded pre-K classrooms or Head Start centers, when they move on from the shelter.

Eventually, the organization hopes to expand into its own building, so it can serve even more children. “Kids in shelters have to grow up too fast and don’t have these places to play and be kids,” Cunningham said. “That’s the main thing we want to give them back.”

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