Understanding the Challenges Faced by Homeless Students: What Educators Can Do to Help
When we think of homelessness, we often think of individuals living on the streets. However, the experience of homelessness is, in fact, much broader. According to the McKinney-Vento Act, the primary legislation regarding education of homeless students, the term “homeless children and youths” means “individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” This may mean that a student is sharing the housing of others or living (with or without their parents or other caregivers) in cars, motels, campgrounds, homeless shelters, bus stations, or other highly transient situations. The lack of a regular nighttime residence defines homelessness, and for students facing it in any form, the impacts are significant.
According to the Children's Defense Fund, more than 1.5 million children enrolled in public schools experienced homelessness at some point during the 2017–18 school year. The Department of Housing and Urban Development's count, which took place pre-pandemic in January 2020, showed that more than 106,000 children were homeless, including almost 11,000 who were living outside.
Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic had a big impact on students experiencing homelessness or housing insecurities. According to the National Education Association (NEA), schools in 2020–21 school year have identified 420,000 fewer students experiencing homelessness, but this is probably incorrect due to the number of students who have fallen off the radar. One district liaison in Michigan responsible for managing the homeless student wraparound services pointed out that with the drop in the numbers, "They becoming more invisible than they already are." SchoolHouse Connection and Poverty Solutions have suggested that these numbers are historically underreported and do not match the true total.
Student Homelessness: Understanding the Impacts on Learning
For homeless students, the classroom could be the one safe, stable place in their day-to-day lives, an important tether to the safety and security of routine and, perhaps most critically, an essential support in the journey out of poverty and into a better situation. Students who have unstable housing are being forced to deal with significant, difficult, and interrelated challenges outside of the classroom that inevitably impact academic performance and the ability to participate in instruction. For some students, the COVID-19 pandemic introduced these challenges for the first time or exacerbated existing tenuous circumstances. Here are just a few ways academics are impacted:
For many students living in poverty, schools are not only a place for learning but also for eating regularly. School-provided meals are associated with improvements in academic performance. At the same time, food insecurity (including irregular or unbalanced diets) is associated with low educational attainment and substantial risks to the physical health and mental wellbeing of children. Food insecurity is a very common consequence of homelessness. The research on hunger and learning is clear—if students aren’t properly nourished, they won’t properly learn. Continuing malnourishment can also lead to developmental problems and chronic health conditions. Exacerbating the problem, neighborhoods with high rates of homelessness and poverty more generally are often considered food deserts, with limited or no access to grocery stores and fresh produce.
In addition to feeding students, schools have offered the opportunity for in-person communication on a wide variety of important issues—especially confidential matters such as mental health support, and wrap around services. When this communication is hindered, the access and use of these additional resources and supports are diminished.
Unintentional Injuries and Illness
Homeless students and their families often have limited access to healthcare or don’t have the means to pay for it. Thus, when these children experience an injury or become sick, it’s more likely to cause serious complications.
Homelessness—and poverty more generally—limits the choices people can make to achieve better health and improve their own situation. This is often referred to as economic exclusion, and it results in worse health outcomes for homeless and other high-poverty populations. This affects children in unique ways, causing acute issues that sometimes place students into special education categories.
Student Homelessness: Telltale Signs Educators Can Look For
It’s easy to see that the academic stakes of student homelessness are high, which can put a lot of pressure on educators. However, there are dedicated resources available for homeless students and the educators working with them. The McKinney-Vento Act stipulates that students who are homeless are to be provided the same free education as other students, even allowing identified homeless students automatic eligibility to Title I status and funding. Each state employs a state coordinator to ensure that all districts comply.
Federal law requires school districts to treat homeless students equitably. Districts also play a critical role in identifying and linking homeless children to services and supports, just as they do with children suffering maltreatment (i.e., physical, sexual, and psychological abuse and neglect).
The first step to accessing these resources is identifying the students in need of them; however, that can be tricky. No caregiver or student wants to admit to being “between residences,” let alone “homeless.” Because families often try to hide their homelessness, many homeless students never gain access to available benefits and services.
Signs that a child is experiencing these insecurities can range from subtle to extreme depending on the specific students and their circumstance, but these signs often present similarly to those of other significant issues like abandonment or neglect. Homelessness is a traumatic experience, and students dealing with it could act out accordingly. Emotionally, they may close in on themselves, becoming withdrawn, or they may gravitate toward the other extreme, becoming aggressive and defensive.
Here are some potential indicators educators can watch for that could suggest students are homeless:
- Wearing the same clothes day after day or wearing clothes that are not consistently clean
- Struggling to keep up with personal hygiene, possibly appearing to not have had a bath, shower, or haircut recently
- Hoarding food that is distributed at lunch, on field trips, or during classroom snack breaks
- Appearing to have medical and/or dental issues (even significant ones) that are not addressed, such as signs of rash, infection, persistent illness, pain, etc.
- Being late to school often or having frequent and/or extended absences
- Carrying a backpack that is very full of personal belongings but lacking adequate school supplies
- Talking about not wanting to go home or sharing vague stories of their living conditions or people they live with that carry negative connotations
- Frequently moving from school to school, sometimes multiple times within a school year
- Consistently failing to complete homework on time or at all
- Having difficulties getting in touch with parents/caregivers, including failure to sign notes, permission slips, etc.
However, it’s important to remember this list is not a checklist. Every student’s situation is unique, so it’s important to proceed gently when you suspect a student might be experiencing stressful circumstances outside of school.
Student Homelessness: What Teachers and Administrators Can Do to Provide Support
Finding these increasingly invisible children is paramount. Here are a few things teachers and administrators interacting directly with students can do to make sure that this happens:
- Avoid calling attention to specific students. Arrange a private meeting to bring up any concerns.
- Provide in-class time for students to complete homework or work directly with students to set up a time when they can work at school in a quiet space.
- Be prepared to address and teach subjects like basic personal hygiene and personal space skills, especially with younger students.
- Respect the boundaries of students dealing with homelessness. Allow them to label their personal possessions or spaces if that helps them feel more secure.
Federal funds dedicated to supporting students who are experiencing homelessness are available and increasing. In July 2021, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona stated, "Even before the coronavirus pandemic highlighted and exacerbated inequities in America's education system, students experiencing homelessness faced numerous challenges as they strove to learn and achieve in school each day. Amid COVID-19 and the transition to remote and hybrid learning, for so many students, these challenges intensified. As a nation, we must do everything we can to ensure that all students—including students experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity—are able to access an excellent education."
The initial CARES Act released critical funding for education but did not include specific assistance for the McKinney-Vento Act. Districts were desperate for the support, but very few districts earmarked these monies for students experiencing homelessness and the surrounding support services. The American Rescue Plan Act’s Homeless Children and Youth (ARP-HCY) was part of the second disbursement of funds through the American Rescue Plan Act, and it saw $200 million directed to local educational agencies that became available to districts on April 23, 2021. The U.S. Department of Education released further funding on July 6, 2021, of nearly $600 million to state education agencies to support services for student experiencing homelessness. These funds were there to bolster the federal education law of the McKinney-Vento Act.
The total of $800 million through the ARP-HCY program is the largest investment dedicated to children and youth experiencing homelessness, eight times the fiscal year 2021 appropriation for the McKinney-Vento Act’s Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) program and more than the previous 10 years of EHCY funding combined.
Student Homelessness: Special Considerations for Students Working Under an IEP
It should come as no surprise that, for children already identified as needing special education services, the stresses of homelessness can exacerbate learning problems. After all, transitions are often hard for children with exceptionalities. Can you imagine anything more transitional than being without a consistent place to sleep every night? With the pandemic, many school interactions, including special education services, moved to a virtual world, increasing the complexities of accomplishing mandated meetings. Here are several suggestions to support homeless students working under an Individualized Education Program (IEP), keeping in mind that homelessness is just one manifestation of poverty. Many of these tips can also apply to special education learners facing poverty without homelessness:
- Get a social worker onboard. The social worker can "follow" homeless students to different schools, coordinate with shelters, and provide school supplies and clothes.
- Get a parent advocate involved. A social worker or other reliable person can help parents by providing a mailing address and phone number, coordinating reliable transportation to meetings, and offering assistance in regard to understanding caregiver rights and the IEP process.
- Be realistic. Realize that some absenteeism may be a reality for homeless students and that it could require two years to complete a grade level.
- List summer school and after-school programming on a student’s IEP to make up for missed days that may cause a homeless student to fall behind.
- Incorporate transportation within the IEP.
- Consider including basic services as part of the IEP, such as remedial services or tutoring, counseling, provision of school supplies, participation in free or reduced lunch/breakfast programs, access to pre-K or other early learning programs, medical services, case management, relevant professional development resources for staff working with the student, agency coordination, and parent training.
- Be flexible and compassionate with scheduling and modality of IEP meetings or conferences.
Homelessness is a broad issue facing education and one that presents itself in so many different ways. The conversations about this critical topic have already begun—in fact, homelessness even made its way into popular media with Sesame Street recently introducing a homeless student in its cast of characters. As schools face the challenges and emotional trauma students have been facing, the conversations about homelessness in education must continue. In these conversations, it’s important to consider the special education ramifications because these students certainly require specific supports. However, it is very much a general education issue too because poverty and homelessness can affect all types of learners. Homelessness can impact, exacerbate, or create student need. For educators, the key is to be vigilant in watching for the signs, be aware of its impacts, and be flexible in response.
This pandemic has magnified the vulnerability of housing insecure and homeless families. It has also caused the withdrawal of nonacademic assistances students rely on. Schools are an essential source of health and mental health services and supports, which are a protective factor for students’ wellbeing. Challenges magnified by COVID-19 are driving programmatic and policy change. These changes revolve around implementing solutions to better help students in need of nonacademic services and supports, especially disadvantaged youth. It is incumbent on state and federal policymakers, as well as local governments and schools, to provide the tools and resources needed, both to meet the forthcoming challenges and to better care for our students. This is, of course, in addition to teaching.