Formerly Homeless Parents Struggle to Access Preschool

A report published by The Cloudburst Group and sponsored by HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research titled A Qualitative Assessment of Parental Preschool Choices and Challenges among Families Experiencing Homelessness reveals that housing instability, weak social support networks, and lack of transportation are significant challenges formerly homeless parents face in enrolling their children in preschool.

The study involved focus groups and surveys of formerly homeless families residing in Atlanta and Connecticut who were part of HUD’s larger Family Options Study. Only families with children under six years of age were asked to participate. The researchers conducted focus groups with 28 parents and then conducted follow-up interviews with the same individuals. More than half (61%) of the participants reported enrolling their children in a formal preschool program, including Head Start.

For most parents, finding a stable home took precedence over whether a preschool program was nearby, and frequent moves limited their ability to keep their children in one preschool program. Weak social support networks presented additional challenges, especially for those who were single parents and did not have help taking his or her child to and from preschool.

The lack of reliable transportation and proximity to schools were significant barriers to preschool enrollment, particularly for parents in the Atlanta metropolitan area where public transportation is limited. One participant reported a transit journey of two to three hours involving a bus and two trains each day to send her youngest daughter to preschool. Another participant noted the financial challenge of the $8 round trip to and from preschool. Some study participants were unable to make use of open preschool slots because of the distance between their home and the school and the lack of transportation.

Long waiting lists for preschool and limited knowledge about preschool options were challenges for formerly homeless parents. Some participants said they did not understand that preschool applications had to be submitted during specific times of the year, such as spring enrollment for a fall session. Housing instability also made it challenging for some parents to apply at the appropriate times.

Some parents expressed frustration with poor communication from preschools and social service providers about open slots. They said that homeless service providers provided inadequate information about preschool options and enrollment processes. Few parents knew about Head Start, the federal program for children that gives priority to homeless families. Parents said they received little information about the program from social service providers or Head Start outreach staff.

The authors conclude that homeless service providers and early childhood educators must do a better job of providing information to families about preschool options, particularly Head Start. The authors recommend homeless service providers discuss preschool as part of case management and help families locate preschool options where families are likely to locate after leaving a shelter rather than within the shelter’s vicinity. They also recommend that preschool programs improve the quality of information they provide to parents, including contact information and enrollment processes. Preschools in the same community could use a common application to make applying to multiple schools easier for parents. Finally, they recommend greater collaboration between homeless service providers and early childhood providers.

A Qualitative Assessment of Parental Preschool Choices and Challenges Among Families Experiencing Homelessness is available at