ERIC Identifier: ED425046 Publication Date: 1999-01-00
Author: Vissing, Yvonne M. Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Rural Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Homeless Children: Addressing the Challenge in Rural Schools.
Rural homelessness is as prevalent as urban homelessness (National Coalition
for the Homeless, 1997). It differs markedly from its urban counterpart. This
Digest considers (1) the challenge of homelessness in rural areas, (2) the
meaning of homelessness for rural children, (3) the educational problems of
homelessness, (4) causes of rural homelessness, and (5) remedies and resources
for rural educators and human service providers.
THE CHALLENGE OF HOMELESSNESS IN RURAL AREAS
the National Coalition for the Homeless (1997, p. 1), "Studies comparing urban
and rural homeless populations have shown that homeless people in rural areas
are more likely to be white, female, married, currently working, homeless for
the first time, and homeless for a shorter period of time." Vissing (1996)
estimates that half of rural homeless households are families with children,
both two-parent and single-parent families. She also suggests that female-headed
households are about twice as numerous among rural, as compared to urban,
homeless (32% vs. 16%).
Exact national figures are not available because 1990 census data on the
homeless are doubtful, especially for rural areas. The census enumeration relied
on the assumption that the homeless would be found in shelters. However, few
shelters exist in rural areas. Even where shelters exist, rural homeless people
favor other options because of shame and pride (Garrett, 1996). Vissing (1996)
reports that instead of relying on social agencies, rural homeless people move
in temporarily with family or friends until they get back on their feet: 41% in
rural areas versus 11% in urban areas.
Homelessness, then, arguably presents a more pressing challenge for rural
than for urban educators because of the higher rate of homelessness involving
families and children. But it receives far less attention, either from national
media or from rural education and social authorities. Most available resources
have been developed for the urban context.
WHAT HOMELESSNESS MEANS FOR RURAL CHILDREN AND
Vissing (1996) uses the terms "housing displacement" and "housing
distress" to describe rural homelessness. She defines rural homelessness as
"lack of a consistent, safe physical structure and 'the emotional deprivation
that occurs as a result'" [italics added] (p. 8). In rural areas, extended
families are sometimes able to take in homeless young families. Abandoned houses
can sometimes be occupied for free, but the availability of electricity,
heating, and water supplies may be doubtful.
Housing shelters humans from the elements, but homes provide more. The social
construct of "the home" describes the physical and emotional space needed for
sustaining a private life. In educationally relevant terms, homelessness
deprives children of the security they need to be themselves. Rural
homelessness, which undermines the conditions of learning, is just one of many
serious threats that poverty inflicts on children's ability to learn (Children's
Defense Fund, 1998).
EDUCATIONAL PROBLEMS OF HOMELESS CHILDREN AND YOUTH
diversity of people with possible rights to elementary and secondary educational
services comprise the homeless: young children, single teenagers on their own
(e.g., pregnant teens, teen parents, runaways), and young adults (Kryder-Coe,
Salamon, & Molnar, 1991). Failure to provide "appropriate" educational
services for these people magnifies their misfortune and frustrates the growth
of their intellectual capacities.
Just enrolling homeless children in school and ensuring their attendance can
be difficult. Residency requirements bar homeless children from attending school
in 60% of the states (Vissing, 1996). Other obstacles to admission include
missing health and education records. Seventy percent of the states report
difficulties getting records of homeless children who transfer to their schools.
Often, homeless children need to be reimmunized. These obstacles are falling in
many places, but the rural situation is unclear.
Although many homeless rural children continue to do well in school,
transience, uncertainty, and emotional turmoil strongly undermine success. Many,
perhaps most, homeless students will develop physical, behavioral, and emotional
problems including post-traumatic stress disorders, depression, and anxiety.
Existing health problems may go untreated, and the stressors of homelessness
inevitably produce new health problems. Transience may disrupt the task of
preparing and serving regular meals. Quantity and quality of food commonly
suffer as well.
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless (1997), rural as
compared to urban homelessness involves more prevalent domestic violence but
less substance abuse. These trends probably reflect the elevated rates of family
homelessness in rural areas.
Profound emotional troubles accompany homelessness. Some children feel
guilty, as if they were the cause of their families' poverty. They may also
resent their parents for not being better providers. And they may actively
resent other students, teachers, and administrators for not understanding
homelessness. Self-destructive behaviors and psychic numbing are common.
Homeless children may act out to get needed attention, but withdrawal is more
common. Suicidal tendencies increase with homelessness, as do incidences of
unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases (Vissing, 1996).
Children usually hide their homelessness. Among all others who interact with
children, teachers are in the best position to identify problems unobtrusively.
They observe their students carefully from day to day.
CAUSES OF RURAL HOMELESSNESS
Some observers (Gans, 1995;
Katz, 1990) note the persistent belief that the poor exhibit bad genes, poor
planning, weakness, and overall lack of discipline and worthiness. According to
this view, the moral fiber of the nation is decaying, and the character of the
family is one victim; the poor reveal themselves as the worst citizens and the
worst people, though it is important to distinguish between the deserving and
the undeserving poor even in this explanation (Katz, 1990). Rural educators
should understand that this concept may characterize conventional wisdom in many
traditional communities (Garrett, 1996).
Among many educators, an economic argument offers a more acceptable
explanation. Homelessness is increasing, according to this argument, in part,
because the income gap between rich and poor in the United States has widened
substantially in recent decades. Measured in constant dollars, the "poorest"
one-fifth of all families had incomes 9% lower in 1996 as compared to 1973. But
incomes for the "wealthiest" one-fifth of all families rose 35% (Children's
Defense Fund, 1998). The gap between rural and urban incomes is also widening,
with the rural percentage of the average urban income falling from 78.5% in 1980
to 72.8% in 1990 (Rural Policy Research Institute, 1998).
Child poverty is also increasing. The Children's Defense Fund (1998) reports
that while the median income (in constant 1996 dollars) of U.S. families with
children stayed level at $41,000 from 1976 to 1996, income for childless
families rose 18% over the same period, and income for young families (parents
under 30) sank 33% from $30,000 to less than $20,000. The child poverty rate in
young families doubled between 1973 and 1996, from 20% to 41% (Children's
Defense Fund, 1998). And, in rural areas, child poverty rates are reportedly
higher than in urban areas (Rural Policy Research Institute, 1998).
As the rural poor get poorer, the proportion of income claimed by housing
goes up. By the standards of the 1950s, 20% of income constituted a normal
housing expense. In the 1970s, the official standard was raised to 25%. Today,
the standard is 30% (Vissing, 1996). But the poor spend a larger proportion of
their income on housing often twice as large. Fitchen (1981) suggests
suburbanization has driven up the price of housing for the rural poor. As new
residents move in, rural land and housing prices increase along with taxes. The
supply of inexpensive housing shrinks, and new residents seek to increase
housing standards. This process makes it difficult for the rural poor to live
either in make shift housing or mobile homes.
REMEDIES AND RESOURCES
Practical strategies and a review of
successful programs to help the homeless are available from organizations listed
in the Resources section, or through publications like those of James Stronge
(1992), which overview successful programs to help homeless students. Again,
adaptations from the urban context should be considered critically.
Schools and districts must consider the appropriateness of policies with
respect to homeless children. Most absentee policies and attendance penalties
fail to acknowledge homelessness as a possible condition of students' lives. In
a logical and practical sense, having a home is a prior condition of schooling.
Homeless students need plenty of lead time for projects, and they should get
in-school support for projects with which parents usually help (e.g., entries
for science and social studies fairs). Professional development workshops could
help teachers more easily identify impoverished rural students and address the
challenge of serving them well in the classroom.
Knowing where to turn for help is important. Administrators in rural areas
where housing distress and displacement are common should make sure that
teachers, counselors, nurses, and other administrators can find local resources.
A handbook or an easily accessible computerized database that describes agencies
and services is essential for those who want to help homeless students.
Immediacy is the key for serving homeless students because their living
circumstances can be truly dire. School personnel should have access to
information that describes options for emergency shelter, long-term housing
support, food and clothing assistance, social services, employment, legal
counsel, medical and dental care, mental health services, emergency financial
assistance, and transportation. All the details of life are usually disrupted
when families become homeless. Single teenagers are likely to exhibit the most
Although formal support is thin in rural areas, some services exist
everywhere. Rural educators may want to commit energy to establishing informal
support mechanisms. They will be pioneers.
Children's Defense Fund. (1998). The state of
America's children: A report from the Children's Defense Fund. Boston: Beacon
Fitchen, J. (1981). Poverty in rural America: A case study. Boulder, CO:
Gans, H. J. (1995). The war against the poor: The underclass and antipoverty
policy. New York: BasicBooks.
Garrett, P. (1996). Poor kids in a rich nation: Eating the seed corn. In
Pathways from poverty educational network. University Park, PA: Northeast
Regional Center for Rural Development. (ED 406 080)
Katz, M. B. (1990). The undeserving poor: From the war on poverty to the war
on welfare. New York: Pantheon Books.
Kryder-Coe, J. H., Salamon, L. M., & Molnar, J. M. (Eds.). (1991).
Homeless children and youth: A new American dilemma. New Brunswick, NJ:
National Coalition for the Homeless. (1997). Rural homelessness (NCH Fact
Sheet No. 13). Also available: http://nch.ari.net/rural.html%20(1998, November
Rural Policy Research Institute. (1998). Diversity in rural America: Income
characteristics of non-metropolitan America. In Rural Policy Context. Columbia,
MO: Author. Also available:
http://www.rupri.org/ruralcontext/diversity/income.html%20(1998, November 10).
Stronge, J. H. (Ed.). (1992). Educating homeless children and adolescents:
Evaluating policy and practice. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
Vissing, Y. M. (1996). Out of sight, out of mind: Homeless children and
families in small-town America. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
Several organizations specialize in programs for the homeless:
Care for the Homeless Information Resource Center
Research Associates, Inc.
Council on the Homeless
Seventh Street, SW, Room 7274
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