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Author Brian Prioleau’s interview with Dr. Carmela DeCandia, Director of The National Center on Family Homelessness, highlights how young mothers who experience homelessness thrive in the face of adversity and the way service providers are in a unique position to help these families with developmentally appropriate supports.

Dr. Carmela DeCandia, Director of The National Center on Family Homelessness, has worked extensively with young teenage mothers who are experiencing homelessness, so you might think she is an expert in heartbreak. She is anything but: “I love working with this group because there is so much opportunity for growth and learning. Between the ages of 15 to 25 is the second greatest intellectual and emotional growth period, when young people are developing their ‘executive functions’: skills such as how to be organized, how to take someone else’s perspective, and how to use thinking skills to regulate emotions. There is an opportunity to capitalize upon this time of incredible brain development with a lot of support and education.

“It is the time in life when people are trying to figure out who they are and who they are going to become. This is a unique stage in development when people are searching for their identity, and it is a time of great change. Consequently, behaviors, moods, choices, and ideas often fluctuate. It is important to remember that these are all normal behaviors for young adults, whether they are experiencing homelessness or not,” said Dr. DeCandia.

The National Center on Family Homelessness headed up a multi-year, multi-site initiative called Strengthening At Risk and Homeless Young Mothers and Children. This initiative was undertaken between 2007 and 2012 in Chicago, Illinois; Antelope Valley and Pomona, California; and Minneapolis, Minnesota. It indicated young homeless families have needs that are similar to homeless families overall, but those needs are developmentally determined and more intense. Compared to older mothers experiencing homelessness, young homeless mothers have fewer life skills, are more at risk, and have complex needs that require intensive services. The Initiative’s goal was to provide integrated and interdisciplinary services. The result was young families demonstrated significant improvements in housing stability, family functioning, and family preservation, as well as maternal and child well-being. The best outcomes came from clinically oriented services where staff received regular supervisory support. The critical competencies providers must know to improve outcomes for young families include: 1) how to conduct comprehensive assessments and target services to meet specific needs of young families; 2) how to ensure timely access to early intervention for children; and 3) how to build strong collaborations and strategic partnerships while also managing costs.

Prior to joining The National Center, DeCandia spent 12 years working with young homeless mothers at St. Mary’s Women and Children’s Center in Dorchester, MA. “The young mothers we worked with were fantastic parents with incredible potential,” said Dr. DeCandia. “The child sitting in their arms was all the motivation they needed. They had a lot going on, and they needed services such as parenting supports, including concrete childcare options and transportation. Plus, they needed information and training about parenting, including breastfeeding support, disciplining their children, and managing a household. Many also needed mental health support for untreated trauma. And they also benefited from job training and education.”

Younger moms are three times more likely to have been in foster care. They also have a lack of social support and have issues such as limited tenancy and work history due to their young age.

Dr. DeCandia also saw how important it was to expose young women to opportunity such as showing them possibilities on how to expand their horizons of who they can be. “In one program at St. Mary’s we brought in women leaders in finance and business to talk to the teens. We asked them ‘Who do you want to be?’ They need opportunities to explore this and to get a vision of the possibilities. We gave them exposure and guidance from women in the field, and they would say, ‘I never thought I could be this.’ But then they see they can.”

Dr. DeCandia is professionally and relentlessly optimistic due to her experience with at-risk teens and young mothers. “I think it is important to note that many young mothers who experience homelessness thrive in the face of adversity and are resilient. Because of this resiliency, service providers are in a unique position to help young families experiencing homelessness by providing them with developmentally appropriate supports and services that they need—e.g., parenting education and supports, enriching opportunities to develop their education and careers, mental health treatment, and of course, trauma-informed care. The science is clear. We simply should not miss this window of opportunity to teach, support, and heal. Young parents deserve nothing less.”

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