The Effects of Homelessness on Children’s Health and Nutrition

By Nam Meesala

The rate of poverty among U.S children has been increasing. Children comprise 40% of the U.S American poverty population. Poverty erodes the nutritional and health status of children. Many homeless individuals eat fewer meals per day and are more likely to have inadequate diets and poor nutritional status in comparison to individuals with stable living situations. This is also linked to other negative conditions such as, inadequate nutrition, inadequate child care, lack of access to health care, unsafe neighborhoods, and underfunded school districts which greatly impact children. Homeless children are at a greater risk for poor academic achievement, dropping out, abuse, neglect, behavioral issues, socio emotional problems, physical health problems, and developmental delays.

Some of the impacts of poor nutrition on the development of a child is described below:


  • Maternal malnutrition during pregnancy increases the risk of premature birth, smaller head size, and lower brain weight.

  • Premature babies are vulnerable to an increased risk of developing learning problems when they reach school age.

Infancy and Early childhood:

  • The first 3 years is a period of rapid brain development in children. Too little energy, proteins, and nutrients during this sensitive period can lead to lasting deficits in cognitive, social and emotional development.

  • Protein malnutrition, iron, iodine, zinc and other vitamin deficiencies can cause brain impairment.

  • Hunger negatively impacts a child’s motor skills, activity level, and motivation to explore their environment.


  • Families often work to hide food insecurity and some parents may feel embarrassment that they are not able to feed their children. Children may also feel stigmatized, isolated and ashamed by their lack of access to food.

  • Hungry children are more likely to repeat a grade, receive special educational services, and mental health counseling.

  • Hungry children are 7-12 times more likely to exhibit symptoms of conduct disorder (fighting, trouble with teacher, not following rules, stealing) than their non-hungry peers.

  • Hungry children show increased anxiousness, irritability, and aggressive/oppositional behavior in comparison to other kids.

Lastly, multiple stressors associated with poverty result in a significantly increased risk for developing psychiatric and functional problems. The effects of undernutrition depend on the length and severity of the period of hunger. Effects of early undernutrition are not permanent, with better nutrition, environmental stimulation, and emotional support a child can lead a healthy life. The human brain is very flexible and can recover from early deficits but brain structure can remain vulnerable to further negative experiences throughout childhood.