Nicole’s son was barely a year old when the two of them ended up homeless. Nicole (a pseudonym to protect her family’s privacy) had broken up with her child’s father and moved out of the apartment they shared, and then a brief stay at her mother’s house had soured. For several months she bounced around shelters in Decatur, baby in tow.

Nicole moved into a six-month transitional housing program, but she couldn’t get approved for a permanent home. Her ex-boyfriend had been evicted after they separated, which had affected her credit, along with $7,000 of unpaid rent. Meanwhile, the $8.50 an hour she was earning at AutoZone wasn’t enough to cover expenses, let alone pay off the debt. With limited childcare options, she couldn’t find a better-paying job. 

“I was just thinking about today, today, today,” Nicole, now 26, recalled. “I couldn’t prepare for tomorrow because I always had to worry about today.” 

A flyer Nicole found at a Job Corps event for the Atlanta Children’s Shelter changed that. Two years ago, she joined their intensive program that provides free, high-quality childcare for kids up to six, along with dedicated social services to help their parents transition from homelessness to financial self-sufficiency and living in their own home.

Today, Nicole’s in stable, long-term transitional housing, with a better-paying job, an improved credit score, and no rent debt. Her son, who’s just shy of his third birthday, is thriving in the Toddler 2 classroom at Atlanta Children’s Shelter. Nicole has started a cosmetology program at Atlanta Technical College and is saving up for a car.

“I feel like I finally have time not to do things in a rush,” she said over the phone recently, on her break from work as a wheelchair attendant at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.  “I have time to think about my future, how to really set things up for future Nicole.”

A lifeline for families

The Junior League of Atlanta opened Atlanta Children’s Shelter in 1986 with the premise that families facing homelessness need safe, affordable, high-quality childcare to become self-sufficient and stably housed.  The center can serve up to 50 children, but that depends on staffing, given the high turnover in the childcare industry.

For too many families, that kind of childcare remains difficult, if not impossible, to access. A 2022 survey by Child Care Aware found that the average annual cost of childcare for an infant in Georgia is $9,227. For a median-income, two-parent household, that’s 9% of annual income, and for single parents, a whopping 29%—far above the 7% maximum considered affordable by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

High childcare costs are exacerbated by low supply: childcare centers are expensive to operate, and early childcare providers earn some of the lowest wages in the country. The Center for American Progress estimates that 51% of Americans live in a “childcare desert,” where there aren’t enough licensed childcare centers to serve the children in the community.

The childcare crisis is compounded for families experiencing homelessness. They are much more likely to be led by single mothers and disproportionately include young children: Children are at the highest risk of experiencing homelessness before their first birthday. Domestic violence plays a huge part in that staggering statistic—75% of the parents at Atlanta Children’s Shelter have experienced violence in the home, which mirrors national figures. 

When childcare isn’t accessible for parents who’re homeless—especially if they don’t have extended family to rely on—they’re often forced to choose between work and caring for their children, which makes it exponentially harder to achieve stability.

Atlanta Children’s Shelter provides safe, affordable childcare while parents get back on their feet–as well as intensive wraparound social and financial support for the parents.

“The whole premise of our program is just to get our families from a place of dependence to a place of independence,” said Mellony Gaston, Atlanta Children’s Shelter’s family services director. “Whatever it is that we have to do to move them in that direction, that’s exactly what we do.”

Counting, singing, and meeting milestones

To qualify for Atlanta Children’s Shelter’s Keys to Independence program, families must be homeless with at least one child between six weeks and six years old. The center defines “homeless” expansively: Clients often come from nearby homeless shelters, but some might be living temporarily with family or elsewhere. 

The childcare center, which is fully accredited and staffed by licensed early childhood educators, is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., giving parents more flexibility for work and other logistics. Located at 607 Peachtree Street, near the Fox Theatre, it’s accessible by MARTA rail and bus, and the center also provides Uber and Lyft vouchers.

The childcare center looks like any other preschool: On a recent early afternoon visit, the hallways were lined with cheery murals and children’s art, and the door of each sunlit classroom displayed the names of the teachers and students inside. Some of the smaller children were napping on blue mats, while older children were eating snacks at tiny tables or working on a numbers project.

But the Keys to Independence program provides much more than a typical preschool curriculum, said Margaret Light, the center’s development coordinator. “When our students come into the program [out of homelessness], they’ve often experienced a lot of trauma that’s impacted their education and also their development,” they explained. 

“All of our staff is trained in trauma-informed principles–how to approach kids and parents with trauma. And the dedication to therapy across the board, guaranteed for all students, also makes a really big difference,” Light said. 

Every student gets an initial behavioral health assessment, and the center provides behavioral therapy, music therapy, or speech and language therapy as needed. Children also receive regular check-ups and immunizations from an onsite pediatric clinic. 

Nicole said her son has flourished at the center over the two years he’s been enrolled. “He’s such a friendly kid, and he’s learning a lot—he tells me every day what he learned in school,” she said. She likes the small class size, which allows each child to receive ample attention. “He has a real bond with his teacher–she’s like a second mom, in my opinion.” She smiled. “I really appreciate that.”

Gaston, the family services director, said that high-quality care for children is part of the partnership they make with parents who are also participating in the program. “There’s a trust we’re building,” she explained. “You’re giving us your time coming into our program, and we want you to say, ‘Wow, this school is absolutely wonderful. My children are safe. I feel safe.’”

From dependence to independence 

While Atlanta Children’s Shelter students are singing nursery rhymes and learning to count to twenty, their parents are engaged in their own intensive program to stabilize their housing and finances.

Atlanta Children’s Shelter’s program for parents is demanding, Light explained, requiring dedicated commitment and communication. The childcare center’s absence policy is strict, in part to maintain the children’s routines and keep staffing levels consistent; families whose children fall below 80% attendance three times are dismissed from the program.  

To find housing, which could be transitional or permanent, parents meet with case managers at the center who frankly appraise their credit scores, debt, rental history, and housing goals. The center generally covers moving costs, a security deposit, and first month’s rent. For families with poor credit or an eviction record, Atlanta Children’s Shelter may go further, putting the lease and utility bills in the parent’s name, while serving as guarantor and covering expenses for a year or two. 

The Atlanta Children’s Shelter helps most families rent an apartment or find transitional housing through other nonprofits, but it also leases a duplex that it rents out to clients who are a good fit, covering costs until the client family gradually takes over their expenses. Nicole lives in one of the units, a sunny two-bedroom, with her son (the other is currently unoccupied); she and her son love having picnics in the spacious backyard. “He loves riding his bike around back there and running around pretending he’s an airplane!”

For employment, parents who don’t have a full-time job must enroll in the center’s “Hire Up” workforce development program, which has relationships with dozens of local companies and training programs. 

To help clients manage their finances, the center offers workshops on credit, home buying and home caretaking, as well as some financial subsidies for educational programs, including college courses.

Nicole is in cosmetology school and working part-time; for now, Atlanta Children’s Shelter covers her rent and bills. They’ve also helped pay off her share of the eviction debt as she works to get it off her credit record, so she can rent her own place.  She works closely with her case manager, Mary Busby, to build a budget and save her income. “She advises me on what to do, helps me make sure I won’t get in this situation again,” Nicole said. “Having someone to talk to about it kind of makes all the difference.” 

Parents in the Keys to Independence program must obtain a psychological health assessment and attend at least one therapy session with a counselor at the center. Many end up attending regularly, Light said. The center also offers family therapy and parenting workshops to help families connect after the trauma of homelessness. 

Families generally take one to two years to complete the Keys to Independence program. They then transition to the less intensive Steps to Success program. The children join another childcare center or begin elementary school, and parents are in charge of their own finances. 

At that point, Light said, the center provides a background safety net, with modified support services and emergency funds if needed, while encouraging parents to continue their career momentum. “The real key to stability is not necessarily just keeping housing,” they explained. “It’s the upward mobility to the stable pay that you need in order to maintain housing.” 

Exiting homelessness for good

Atlanta Children’s Shelter’s comprehensive childcare and parental support program is not cheap. The center reported expenses of nearly $2 million last year to serve roughly 50 client families, largely for staff salaries, service provider payments, and childcare facility overhead. The funding comes mostly from private foundations, as well as individual donors, fundraisers, and a few small city and federal grants. 

But that intensive support pays off, said Gaston, the family services director. “Whatever we’ve given them, it’s going to prepare them for the long-term, so they don’t have to ever visit the whole homeless thing again,” she said. “But we’re not miracle workers. The success is due to the clients wanting to change their own lives. We’re just there to support them.”

Gaston estimated she’s served over 5,000 families in her 23 years with the center and said she’s seen only three return after lapsing back into homelessness. She often hears from families that have gone on to thrive. 

 Gaston said a mom just called to share that her son had graduated from college after participating in the childcare program years earlier.  “They really come in one way, and they leave another,” she said. “We want the whole family to get to a place, not just of independence, but of peace and safety.” 

With the stability the center has provided, Nicole said, she’s been able to start envisioning a real future for herself and her son. Her next steps are to buy a car and finish cosmetology school. Down the road, she hopes to buy a townhouse, settle down with the right person, and have a couple more kids. 

But for now, she’s happy just to have some breathing room to slow down, watch her son grow up, and enjoy their life together. “I feel like since I gave birth to my child, I’ve been on this long journey of finding myself and figuring out what I’m going to do,” she said. “I’ve just finally had a lot more time to reflect. And I’m really grateful to this program for that.”

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