Pathways Early Learning Center Meets Urgent Need for Families Experiencing Homelessness

Pathways ELC is Alabama’s first licensed childcare center exclusively for children experiencing homelessness. Photo courtesy of Pathways

If you think attending an 8 a.m. lecture is hard, try following along while bouncing a 3-year-old on your lap. For parents experiencing homelessness in Birmingham, this is just one reality resulting from insufficient childcare access.

More serious problems include missing job interviews, interference with employment and other matters affecting financial security. When there’s no way for the mother to receive opportunities many of us are fortunate to have, the cycle of homelessness continues.

To address this issue, Pathways, a United Way of Central Alabama (UWCA) agency, launched a new pilot program in the fall of 2021. Pathways Early Learning Center (ELC) provides free, high-quality early childhood education for children ages eight weeks to five years in families experiencing homeless.

The ELC is Alabama’s first licensed childcare center exclusively for children experiencing homelessness. It provides childcare that is immediately available, with low-barrier entry, at no cost to the families. 

“In addition to the benefits for the children, the ELC will empower parents to quicken the path out of homelessness for their family,” said Pathways’ Assistant Director, Casey Cunningham. “Without childcare, parents experiencing homelessness must take their young children with them throughout the day, making it difficult to address barriers contributing to their homelessness. Our hope is that by opening Pathways ELC, we will create a more inclusive and accessible city for these families.”

Even as families are able to emerge from homelessness, the ELC will continue its support by facilitating children’s successful transition to other early childhood education (ECE) programs.

Eliminating Future Obstacles for Children and Their Families

According to Pathways, one in 23 children in Alabama will experience homelessness before the age of six. Out of those, only 3% of children are currently accessing federally funded early childhood education programs.

“At Pathways, we believe that all children are equally deserving of high-quality educational experiences, regardless of where they sleep at night.”

Pathways’ Assistant Director, Casey Cunningham

Affordable, high-quality childcare is an urgent, unmet need for families experiencing homelessness in Birmingham. The instability can produce trauma that has lasting negative effects on children’s health and development.

“Children experiencing homelessness need a safe, nurturing space where they are free to just be kids,” said Cunningham. “Pathways ELC will provide this space, helping to bridge the opportunity gap for children experiencing homelessness by preparing them with the resources they need to succeed in their future schooling.”

The ELC offers free diapers, wipes, clothing and other supplies for the children. Also, since these children have experienced a unique set of circumstances, they are met with a tailored approach to teaching.

ELC teachers are learning the trauma-informed approach to care as well as social-emotional teaching methods. The Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education (ADECE) provides coaching, professional development and individual support to ELC teachers.

“This child-centric model is a unique approach to homeless services,” said Cunningham. “The ELC puts children first, offering babies and toddlers a respite from the harsh realities of homelessness, a chance to enjoy the magic and wonder of childhood in their time spent learning and laughing with us.”

However, education extends past the children. ELC teachers work with parents to assess each child’s development and provide early intervention resources. Eventually, Pathways will offer parenting classes and additional resources in Pathways Day Center.

Open to All Families Experiencing Homelessness

Although the ELC encourages all its parents to pursue housing for their families, children’s participation in the program isn’t dependent on the parent’s progress out of homelessness. Pathways designed the ELC to be as “low-barrier” as possible, meaning it’s available to families from their first day of homelessness.

To eliminate one of the main problems preventing families from accessing other centers, Pathways does not require parents to provide their child’s immunization documents and birth certificate at enrollment. Instead, Pathways’ case managers work with the families to help them gain these documents.

The ELC is open not only to women and children staying in one of Pathways’ emergency shelters. Families staying in any homeless shelter in the Birmingham area, sleeping outside or staying in any place not meant for human habitation, such as an abandoned building or car, are welcome.

Just within the first week of opening, Pathways ELC enrolled seven children from three different shelters. One mother staying in Pathways’ Stepping Stones emergency shelter with two preschool-age children had access to only four hours of childcare a day — prior to the ELC’s opening.

“Thanks to the ELC, she was able to start a new full-time job that will provide the income she needs to regain economic stability for her family,” said Cunningham.

A Dream Finally Achieved

Pathways believes that all children are equally deserving of high-quality educational experiences. Photo courtesy of Pathways

“Opening an Early Learning Center for children experiencing homelessness has been our dream for the past three years,” said Cunningham. “From zoning laws and health inspections to building renovations and a global pandemic, we faced many hurdles along the way. Pathways is incredibly thankful to the early believers whose initial support brought the Early Learning Center to life.”

Now that Pathways has achieved its dream, so will many others who benefit from the ELC.

The ELC is open Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and is in the Pathways building in downtown Birmingham. Parents experiencing homelessness with children age eight weeks to five years can call or visit Pathways to begin the enrollment process.

The ELC will need ongoing support to remain a vital resource for homeless families. To learn how you can help, email