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Adv Pediatr. 2007;54:173-87.

The health of homeless children revisited.

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1
The Children's Health Fund, 215 West 125th Street, New York, NY 10027, USA. rgrant@chfund.org

Abstract

To the extent that representative data are available for specific health conditions (eg, under-immunization, asthma prevalence), the authors' data suggest that the gap between the health status of homeless children and housed children in minority, low-income families is narrowing. Studies of the health status of homeless children allow a window into the health status of medically underserved children whose needs may not be readily documented because of their lack of access to the health care system. Although prevalence rates of most of the health conditions discussed in this article exceeded national norms, they were generally consistent with rates characteristic of health disparities based on race-ethnicity and income. It must be emphasized that in most instances, children were seen for their first pediatric visit within weeks of entering the homeless shelter system. The health conditions identified were often present before the child and family became homeless. The high prevalence of asthma among homeless children should therefore be a matter of concern to health providers and payors, because the authors' data strongly suggest that this is not confined to children in homeless shelters as a special population. Similarly, childhood obesity predates homelessness (or at least the episode of homelessness during which health care was provided) and as such the authors' data may indicate the extent of this problem more generally among medically underserved children in the communities of origin. These conditions seem to be exacerbated by the specific conditions associated with homeless shelter life. Asthma care, assuming it was previously available, is disrupted when housing is lost, and shelter conditions may have multiple asthma triggers. Nutrition often suffers as a result of inadequate access to nutritious food and cooking facilities in shelters, as indicated by the high rate of iron-deficiency anemia among very young children. It is clear that homeless children in shelters require enhanced access to primary and specialist care. Shelter placement necessarily disrupts prior health care relationships (if any), while simultaneously placing additional stress on the child's physical and emotional well being. A medical home model is strongly recommended to allow for continuous, culturally competent care. Developmental and mental health problems are also more prevalent among homeless children. These conditions may jeopardize life successes. The overcrowding associated with homeless shelters and the housing conditions that frequently precede episodes of homelessness are associated with the higher prevalence of otitis media found among young children. This in turn is associated with developmental delay. Also contributing to the developmental risk associated with homelessness is exposure to DV, which is also frequently an antecedent of homelessness. Developmental surveillance for young, homeless children, monitoring of school attendance and academic performance, and assessment of mental status for homeless adolescents are recommended to facilitate early identification of problems and delivery of necessary interventions. For young children, providers of health care to the homeless should be well networked into the Early Intervention and Preschool Special Education programs in their locality. Given the multiplicity of needs for homeless families, which of course includes help finding affordable housing, health care providers serving this population should also develop linkages with community agencies, including those that can help parents develop the skills necessary for economic self-sufficiency and long-term ability to sustain independent housing.

PMID:
17918471
[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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