ERIC Identifier: ED308276
Publication Date: 1989-00-00
Author: Wells, Amy Stuart
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Urban Education New York NY.
Educating Homeless Children. ERIC/CUE Digest No. 52.
Until the 1980s, the American homeless population was comprised mainly of
older males. Today, homelessness strikes much younger segments of the society.
In fact, a 25-city survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 1987 found that
families with children constitute the fastest growing segment of the homeless
population (House of Representatives, 1987). Many homeless children are
clustered in inner cities; this transient and frequently frightened student
population creates additional problems--both legal and educational--for already
overburdened urban school administrators and teachers.
DEMOGRAPHICS OF HOMELESS SCHOOL-AGE CHILDREN
the total number of homeless Americans range from 350,000 (U.S. Department of
Housing and Urban Development, 1986) to 3 million (National Coalition for the
Homeless, 1987). Likewise, estimates of the number of homeless school-age
children vary radically (Children's Defense Fund, 1988). A U.S. Department of
Education (DOE) report, based on state estimates, asserts that there are 220,000
homeless school-age children, about one-third of whom do not attend school on a
regular basis (1989). But, the National Coalition for the Homeless estimates
that there at least two times as many homeless children, and that less than half
of them attend school regularly (CDF, 1988).
One segment of the homeless children population that is particularly
difficult to count consists of the "throwaway" youths, who have been cast out of
their homes. The Elementary School Center in New York estimates that there are
1.5 million of them, many of whom are not counted as children because they do
not stay in the family shelters and tend to live by themselves on the streets.
The five cities with the greatest number of homeless children are Los
Angeles, New York, Chicago, the Minneapolis metropolitan area, and Houston (DOE,
1989)--cities whose education systems are also taxed heavily by the needs of the
other inner city students they serve.
EDUCATION PROVISIONS OF THE MCKINNEY ACT
The Federal law,
the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, includes a section that
addresses the educational needs of homeless children.
The education provisions of the McKinney Act are premised on the beliefs
that: all homeless children have the right to a free, appropriate education; and
state and local laws and regulations must be revised, if necessary, to assure
that homeless children are not denied this right.
The laws that most frequently need to be revised at the state and local level
are school residency laws. Under the McKinney Act, schools can no longer deny
access to homeless students without proof of residency within the school's zone.
In addition, rules regarding guardianship must be waived for homeless students
living with foster parents or relatives other than their legal guardians.
The Act instituted a two-year Federal grant program calling for each state
department of education to establish an office of the Coordinator of Education
of Homeless Children and Youth. The coordinator is responsible for gathering
statewide data for the U.S. Department of Education on the number and school
attendance rates of homeless children, and for writing state plans for educating
These state plans must include at least the following provisions:
o procedures for resolving disputes regarding education placements
of homeless students;
o authorization for state and local agencies to make determinations
required in all components of the plan; and
o assurance that local educational agencies will accommodate students
"in keeping with the best interest of the child," rather than on the
basis of administrative convenience or cost (Bowen, Purrington,
Layton, & O'Brien, 1989).
This third component of the state plans provides homeless parents and
students with two options for school selection: 1) continuance at the school of
origin; or 2) the student can transfer to the school nearest the temporary
shelter. In most cases, it is up to the student's school district to provide
transportation from the shelter or hotel to the school.
In addition, the state plans must assure that homeless children are provided
with the same services as other students in the school and that local school
officials must maintain appropriate records on each homeless child (Bowen et
PROBLEMS FACING LOCAL EDUCATORS
Given the mandates of the
McKinney Act and the requirements of the new state plans, local education
officials must devise methods of overcoming the various problems that arise in
providing services for homeless children. The following list, derived from the
U.S. Department of Education report (1989) and ERIC/CUE interviews with
educators and homeless advocates, documents the most frequently cited
educational problems of homeless children:
o Transporting homeless students, many of whom change shelters
often, to and from school can be complicated.
o School records are rarely transferred from school to school
promptly because parents are often embarrassed to inform schools
that they are homeless. Without records, new teachers must invest
extra time in assessing achievement levels.
o Health records, especially for those families who lost their homes in
fires or who are fleeing from an abusive spouse, are rarely intact.
Although many state laws previously mandated that children could
not attend school without their immunization records, local
educators are forced to become more lenient. Homeless children may
end up having to be reimmunized.
o As students move from shelter to shelter and school to school, they
never stay in one place long enough for teachers to assess their
o Homeless students rarely have the space or the peace and quiet for
homework. Shelters are often large, noisy one-room barracks-like
structures with no privacy. Students living in hotels often share
one small room with their entire family.
o Education is not a top priority of homeless families, as parents are
preoccupied with finding food, safe shelter, and employment.
o General lack of community services for homeless families, including
health and mental health care, as well as day care for school-age
mothers, makes regular school attendance impossible.
o Emotional and socialization problems are common consequences of
homelessness. Many homeless students are under severe stress and
act depressed or aggressive. Students are often embarrassed to
tell anyone at school about their lifestyles and therefore have a
difficult time socializing with peers.
SOLUTIONS TO PROBLEMS OF EDUCATING HOMELESS
Despite the lack of agreement on how local educators should help
meet the needs of homeless children and youth, several innovative and helpful
programs are in place around the country. Given adequate funds and support,
educators say they could provide the following programs for their homeless
o School-shelter liaisons, or district employees who meet with families
as they move into temporary housing and assist in getting students
enrolled in the nearest schools. Examples of such efforts are found
in Newark, Cleveland, and certain school districts in New York City.
These district employees can also arrange transportation for
students who choose to remain at their original school. And for
those students who transfer from their schools of origin, liaisons
can help obtain academic records quickly. They also help to assure
that students who leave the shelters and hotels are enrolled in new
o After-school and extended day programs to provide homeless
students with a quiet place to do homework or participate in
o Special tutoring programs for homeless students, especially those
who have missed a great deal of school.
o Pre-school programs for homeless children.
o Workshops for parents on how to find housing and jobs.
o In-school social workers and counselors, who can help with
everything from academic counseling to clothes drives for homeless
o In-service training programs to help raise the awareness and
sensitivity of school personnel to the problems and daily trials
these students face.
While educators realize that such programs will not solve the most crucial
problem for homeless children--the lack of a safe, warm place to call home--they
contend that such programs and services will help schools meet the requirements
of the McKinney Act as they help children survive during a time of great stress
Bowen, J.M., Purrington, G.S., Layton, D.H., & O'Brien, K. (1989). Educating Homeless Children and Youth: A Policy
Analysis. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational
Research Association, San Francisco, CA.
Children's Defense Fund. (1988). A Children's Defense Budget 1989.
Washington, D.C.: Author.
House of Representatives, Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families.
(1987). Crisis in Homelessness: Effects on Children and Families. Washington,
D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.
National Coalition for the Homeless. (1987). TK
U.S. Department of Education. (1989). Report to Congress on final reports
submitted by states in accordance with Section 724(b) (3) of the Stewart B.
McKinney Homeless Assistance Act. Washington, D.C.: Author.
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Affairs. (1987). TK