ERIC Identifier: ED358376
Publication Date: 1993-00-00
Author: Imel, Susan
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult
Career and Vocational Education Columbus OH.
Education for Homeless Adults. ERIC Digest.
[My tutor] challenged me and told me, "You can do it" when I wasn't so sure.
This is the best thing I've ever done for myself; I NEED this program--it gives
me structure, and when I'm doing my school work, I'm not thinking about going
off and getting high. I want to do this for me. Getting my GED will be nice of
course, but this is something I can do for myself. I got my first A ever here. I
still have the paper! In fact, I now have a collection of my A papers and I am
going to keep them all because I am proud of them. Learner in Massachusetts
Adult Education for the Homeless Program (USDE 1993, p. 8).
Homelessness in the United States continues to be a persistent and nagging
social problem. Although estimates on the number of homeless people range
between 500,000 and 2 million, the most widely cited figure is 600,000 (Levitan
and Schillmoeller 1991; Norris and Kennington 1992). Whatever the actual number,
Norris and Kennington (1992, n.p.) observe that "the problem is taking on
dimensions unimaginable a decade ago and growth in homelessness is expected to
continue, especially among women and children." The inclination to dehumanize
homeless persons through homogeneous characterizations masks the reality that in
fact the population is diverse in nature (Sperazi et al. 1990). As a group,
however, they tend to be poorly educated and impoverished: more than half did
not complete high school and their monthly median income is about $100, a figure
that is less than one-fourth of the federal poverty level for a single person
(Levitan and Schillmoeller 1991). Due to their life circumstances, obtaining
more education may be a low priority for homeless adults; most are simply trying
Many social and governmental agencies and programs have been created to
address the plight of homeless persons, but it was not until the passage of the
Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act (Public Law 100-77) on July 22, 1987
that significant resources became available to support educational programs for
homeless adults. Title VII-A of the McKinney Act spawned the Adult Education for
the Homeless (AEH) program that provides funds for states to develop plans and
implement programs for literacy training and basic skills remediation for
homeless adults (U.S. Department of Education 1990). Although the McKinney Act
also provides funding for job training for homeless adults, this ERIC Digest
focuses on the unique and special challenges of providing adult basic education
for homeless persons. It begins with an overview of the AEH program, including
results from the first 4 years. Next, some characteristics of AEH programs are
described. Recommendations for program development conclude the Digest.
THE ADULT EDUCATION FOR THE HOMELESS PROGRAM: AN
The following overview of the Adult Education for the Homeless
(AEH) program is based on information from reports developed by the Division of
Adult Education and Literacy (USDE 1990, 1992, 1993). When the AEH program was
initiated, all states received at least $75,000 from the first-year
appropriation of $6.9 million. After the second year, however, states had to
compete for AEH funding. Under the competitive grant process, 30 and 31 states
received funds in the third and fourth years respectively. Since its inception,
funding appropriations for the AEH program have increased marginally, reaching a
level of $9.8 million in the fifth year.
During its first 4 years, the AEH program served over 100,000 homeless
adults. In 1991, the latest year for which program figures are available, 34,000
adults participated in AEH programs in 31 states, a figure that represented a 42
percent increase over the number of learners (24,000) served in 1990. Most
adults enter programs to fulfill one of the following objectives: to improve
life skills (including parenting skills), to increase their level of
employability, to develop basic skills needed to enter a training program, or to
find a job. During years 2 through 4 of the program, the percentage of adults
achieving these goals remained remarkably stable: approximately 9 percent either
found jobs or improved their employment status, and 7 percent entered
occupational training. Another 3 percent obtained a General Educational
Development (GED) certificate. Approximately 60 percent of the learners served
are aged 25 to 44 with another 29 percent in the 16- to 24-year-old group.
Although the AEH program still serves more males than females, the number of
female participants is increasing: in 1991 almost half were women.
Factors that deter successful implementation of AEH programs have appeared in
a number of reports (e.g., Norris and Kennington 1992; USDE 1991, 1992;
Wesselius Associates 1990). Those most frequently mentioned include (1) mobility
of the learner population--many participants leave shelters or the area before
completing the program; (2) shelter environments--inadequate facilities or lack
of cooperation from shelter staff; (3) personal characteristics of participants
that cause education to be a low priority, including the adult responsibilities
of part-time work and job hunting; and (4) program limitations such as lack of
child care, staff turnover, and inadequate curriculum.
Although AEH programs that provide
basic and life skills instruction share some similarities with other programs
funded by the Adult Education Act, they also have some distinctive
characteristics. The state of Wisconsin found that the AEH program neither
replaced nor competed with established programs because it reached previously
unserved adults and brought them into an educational program (Wesselius
Initially, states used one of the following approaches to implement the AEH
program (USDE 1990):
Development/Capacity-Building Approach--emphasizing program structure and model
Urban Focus Approach--designed to reach the maximum number of students in states
with large urban populations
Services to Women Approach--designed to meet the special needs of homeless women
Statewide Approach--focusing on developing a variety of class locations and
Since the first year, when these approaches were initiated, most states have
tended to focus on either the delivery of services in urban areas or the
statewide approach, although the other two approaches are still in use (USDE
Two basic program models have emerged from these approaches: onsite and
offsite. Onsite programs provide instruction in quarters where homeless adults
live and sleep, whereas offsite programs use sites frequented by homeless
persons such as soup kitchens, libraries, and churches (Norris and Kennington
1992). During years 1 and 2, the Massachusetts AEH program required a one-on-one
partnership between an adult education center and a homeless shelter or cluster
of shelters, with partners free to determine whether instruction took place
onsite or offsite. A major benefit of the partnership approach was the evolution
of the instructional model due to better understanding of the "relationship
between agencies with different histories, languages, priorities, and
personalities" (Sperazi et al. 1990, p. 8).
To meet the range of learner needs, programs have created a host of
cooperative arrangements with other social service agencies, including local
literacy councils, ministerial alliances, food banks, counseling agencies, human
service departments, and business and industry (USDE 1993). In Wisconsin,
development of interagency linkages created a forum for shelter operators,
community leaders, and educators to discuss educational needs of homeless adults
and to develop strategies to meet these needs (Wesselius Associates 1990).
Life circumstances of AEH learners are such that they have many immediate
needs and education is rarely among them. Thus instruction has a strong life
skills emphasis in order to meet broader learner goals. The Division of Adult
Education and Literacy (USDE 1992) identified successful instructional elements
as "those which assist the learner in applying basic literacy skills in dealing
with situations of homelessness . . . [including] life planning, family
literacy, stress management, plus mastery of instruction in small,
self-contained units" (p. 11).
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT
recommendations for program development for homeless adults based on the
experiences of the AEH program have been synthesized from several sources
(Norris and Kennington 1992; Sperazi et al. 1990; Wesselius Associates 1990;
USDE 1990, 1992, 1993):
Focus on the adult as a learner rather than as a member of a particular
subgroup. Although it is important for program staff to understand the social
and economic conditions resulting in homelessness, the teaching/learning
relationship should take precedence in the educational setting.
Use learner-centered approaches in order to provide adults an opportunity to
have control over at least one aspect of their lives.
Use learner life experiences as the basis for the curriculum or learning
activities. The materials should develop basic skills while addressing the
personal, social, and economic forces that create homelessness.
Develop curricula that address the diversity of experience, age, gender, race,
ethnicity, and parenting status in the learner group.
Develop a network of instructors to facilitate the sharing of curricula and
instructional materials and common experiences.
Provide ongoing staff development focusing on such areas as literacy
instruction, community resources, knowledge of homelessness issues, crisis
management, and stress management.
Cultivate a teamwork mentality that encourages AEH program staff to work with
shelter staff, case workers, and other social service personnel by providing the
interagency linkages to support these efforts.
Provide access to the wide range of services needed by homeless persons by
giving high priority to collaboration among agencies and programs serving
During its brief history, the AEH program
reports have documented a number of experiences and strategies that can provide
valuable lessons not only to other AEH programs but also to other adult basic
and literacy educators working with populations in transition. Keeton and Parker
(1993) provide an example of the generalizability of the experiences of AEH
programs by describing a process for creating transition teams that can be
developed by any program that is helping learners move from dependency to
self-sufficiency. Because AEH programs have addressed barriers not previously
encountered by adult basic and literacy educators, the field has much to learn
from their experiences.
Keeton, P. M., and Parker, J. T. "ABE: An
Integral Part of Personal Transition." ADULT LEARNING 4, no. 5 (May-June 1993):
Levitan, S. A., and Schillmoeller, S. THE PARADOX OF HOMELESSNESS IN AMERICA.
Washington, DC: Center for Social Policy Studies, George Washington University,
January 1991. (ED 328 759)
Norris, J. A., and Kennington, P. DEVELOPING LITERACY PROGRAMS FOR HOMELESS
ADULTS. Malabar, FL: Krieger, 1992.
Sperazi, L. et al. "FINDING MYSELF; FINDING MY HOME." AN EVALUATION OF THE ADULT EDUCATION WITH HOMELESS PERSONS PROJECT. Wellesley, MA: Wellesley College, September 1990. (ED 350 424)
U. S. Department of Education. EDUCATION FOR HOMELESS ADULTS: THE FIRST YEAR.
Washington, DC: Division of Adult Education and Literacy, Office of Vocational
and Adult Education, USDE, December 1990. (ED 329 701)
U. S. Department of Education. EDUCATION FOR HOMELESS ADULTS: THE 1989-1990
REPORT. Washington, DC: Division of Adult Education and Literacy, Office of
Vocational and Adult Education, USDE, October 1992.
U. S. Department of Education. ADULTS IN TRANSITION: A REPORT OF THE FOURTH YEAR OF THE ADULT EDUCATION FOR THE HOMELESS PROGRAM. Washington, DC: Division of Adult Education and Literacy, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, USDE, May 1993.
Wesselius Associates. WISCONSIN ADULT EDUCATION FOR THE HOMELESS. PROGRAM
EVALUATION FINAL REPORT. Madison: Wisconsin State Board of Vocational,
Technical, and Adult Education, December 1990. (ED 335 483)