Families deserve specialized services to end homelessness

After discovering more than two decades ago that there were 20 children living a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol in the Community for Creative Nonviolence (CCNV) shelter, I took a tour. I was not prepared to find such sparse living spaces — not to mention rat holes. Despite the children hanging out in the hallways, I didn’t spot a single toy. So lawyer Gina Kline and I rallied friends and recruited volunteers to establish a playroom. Each week, we offered activities, snacks and supplies during two hours of playtime. Laughter, music, and joyful sounds of childhood filled the hallways. “Playtime” was born. 

Homeless Children’s Playtime Project was created to cultivate resilience in children experiencing family homelessness by providing and expanding access to transformative play experiences. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, play is critical to the “cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children.” Despite its tremendous importance and benefits, some children have precious little access to play — especially children experiencing homelessness. 

Shelter stays have decreased lately, while the use of temporary rapid rehousing vouchers has increased. This has made it challenging for Playtime to offer our usual trauma-informed programs, which seek to increase resiliency by providing opportunities for children to learn and heal through play, and which also empower children to make choices, express themselves, relate to others, and find support. 

In response, we’ve adapted our services. But we know that housing and play are just the beginning. To truly end homelessness, it is crucial to include children in the District’s rapid rehousing case management models. 

The rapid rehousing model was designed for single adults. However, over the last three decades, there has been a tremendous increase in homelessness among parents with children. Throughout the homeless service system, children’s unique needs have all too often been overlooked. Once in rapid rehousing, it is often common not to know how kids are doing — but a child should never be “out of sight, out of mind.” We believe that any program model providing temporary housing to families in transition must include services focused on the unique needs of children, the comprehensive needs of the parents, and the well-being of the family. These are the building blocks of family stability.

With shelters no longer serving as hubs for most families experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity, community-based sites are the next best place to reach our target population. In February, Playtime will pilot two new community-based program models, a school-based model at Ward 7’s J.C. Nalle Elementary School, and “Pop-Up” Family Playtime at outdoor and indoor community spaces for those experiencing housing insecurity in the D.C. area. Pop-Up events will include family activities, play kits, information about Playtime’s services, supplies for parents like diapers and grocery gift cards, and special guests. The program will be full-service, with a twice-weekly program schedule, social work services, emergency referrals and support, play kits, and educational advocacy. 

Play opportunities are not only important for children. They’re also a portal to support services for families, so that they may benefit from community resources and meet their critical-service needs. Staff coordinate referrals, linkages, and emergency supplies and case management, and when needed, individualized advocacy for education, mental health, and other social service access. We rely on the latest research and best practices in the areas of child and family social work, education, child development, and homeless services and policy.

We go where the children are and where the need is. No matter where families live, children deserve the chance to play, now more than ever!  

Jamila Larson is executive director and co-founder of Homeless Children’s Playtime Project.

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We believe ending homelessness begins with listening to the stories of those who have experienced it.