Published: April 17, 2020
A high number of Americans – about to 40 to 59 percent – live financially close to the edge, with few resources available for emergency backup.
Just one rough patch has the ability to throw families off their feet, impacting their ability to make the rent, buy groceries, pay bills, access needed healthcare services and see their way through a crisis.
“For many in our community, COVID-19 is proving to be that factor,” said Erika Thompson, PhD, HSC Assistant Professor and Maternal and Child Health MPH Program Director. “In a time like this, as with other serious impacts on health, those most vulnerable tend to be the most seriously affected populations in the community, making it especially concerning for children and families during this pandemic.”
As a researcher, Dr. Thompson works to find public health solutions to some of the most pressing challenges facing children and families. One of the local organizations she partners with is Center for Transforming Lives (CTL), a Tarrant County agency providing homeless services, early childhood development, childcare, economic stability programs and other resources to those in need.
Dr. Thompson and CTL’s Executive Director, Carol Klocek, recently discussed some of the biggest community concerns right now.
What are the challenges for families during COVID-19?
Dr. Thompson: “My biggest concern is for families living on the edge or in poverty. Loss of a job, reduced income, limited resources for childcare and transportation can all economically harm families without the financial savings to weather a crisis or stock up on goods to make it through.”
Klocek: “The vast majority of the 3,000 people our agency sees each year are single mothers already on the edge, and families experiencing homelessness also face unique challenges during this pandemic. Community providers like the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition and others are doing a remarkable job of coordinating the shelter flow process with enhanced health and safety precautions, as well as reaching out to feed large groups of people living on the streets. The Fort Worth Convention Center opened its doors to the homeless in March, providing additional assistance, although there are still many people afraid of living in shelter conditions right now, who are choosing to remain on the streets or in tents.”
What are the special concerns for children?
Dr. Thompson: “While children may not be the most susceptible to the infection compared to the elderly, the social, educational and economic consequences may negatively affect the future path of their lives. There are a range of unique circumstances for families with children, including access to educational resources, safe childcare and access to food. For example, not all parents have the ability to work from home, so older children may be taking on caregiving responsibility for siblings while a parent continues working or picking up additional shifts at their job. Essential-worker parents may be struggling to find alternative childcare options. Parents who can work from home are trying to manage their childcare along with employment in a different way. Taking care of the children can become a stressor on the entire family.”
Klocek: “A significant number of children also rely on schools for several meals a day. While many schools are offering meals, there are families with young children struggling due to lack of transportation, so they are relying on agencies like ours to deliver food to them.
CTL’s homeless shelter and family housing center are currently at capacity, and we have retooled our Early Head Start services to get food and essential items to others who need them. Safety concerns are also high right now. Medical centers are reporting increases in severe child abuse cases during this stressful period of social distancing and isolation, and children living in unsafe situations may be more exposed.”
What about school?
Dr. Thompson: “Some families may lack stable internet connections, computers or technology resources. Having more children at home engaged in distance learning can place additional strain on internet connectivity, and delivery of education at home means having a parent with the time and ability to support children at multiple grade levels while also managing their own responsibilities. This can be overwhelming for any parent.”
Klocek: “Several local agencies like CTL are offering educational resources and support as a safety net for families. We are also providing hotspots and device coordination, to support families’ engagement with our educational programming, and for school-aged children in our homeless services to link with their school districts.”
What are the longer-term impacts of COVID-19?
Klocek: “Some employment is being reduced as businesses deal with uncertainty, potentially resulting in more families facing hunger, instability and future homelessness. I’m also concerned for single parents who may be ill or worried about becoming ill and need options for their children. Their stories are heart-wrenching.”
Dr. Thompson: “There is also tremendous stress on first responders, healthcare workers and professions on the front lines delivering goods and services, increasing risks to their health and the health of their families. Mental health concerns, anxiety, fatigue, burnout and other stress-related conditions are also high right now, with the strains of working under COVID-19 likely to remain with our community and others for a long time into the future.”
How can we all cope?
Klocek: “We are all struggling right now to get through. Many people want to help, and there are numerous ways to do so. Words of encouragement mean a lot to anyone feeling stressed or unsure. Our communities have come through world wars, other major health threats, the tragedy of 9/11, natural disasters and so much more in history, that we know together we can figure out the next right steps and make them happen.”
Dr. Thompson: “This is an opportunity to reexamine how as a community we can support children and families. There are many ways to help. Look for those ways and express thanks to the various local organizations working hard right now to provide resources – appreciation may be just what they need to get them through. Continue following social distancing and other recommended safe health behaviors, and consider the spectrum of families and children across our community facing this pandemic. We all have our challenges during this crisis, and COVID-19 presents an opportunity to come together to support all children and families.”