Opportunity: Addressing the Needs of Homeless Students
by John H. Holloway, Educational Leadership, Volume 60
Number 4, January 2003, Pages 89-90
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The most recent U.S. Census, in the year 2000, identified
170,706 people who were living in emergency and transitional
shelters. Of this sample, about one-quarter, or 43,887, were
under the age of 18 (Smith & Smith, 2001). Although this
number does not represent the total homeless population, it
does show that homelessness affects large numbers of children
and youth. The National Coalition for the Homeless (1999)
reports that families with children constitute about 40
percent of people who become homeless, and that children are
the fastest growing segment of the homeless population.
High Mobility and School Attendance
Homeless families face many challenges. Many of them move
frequently, which may affect their ability to enroll their
children in schools and to ensure the children's attendance
once enrolled. Various studies have measured the mobility and
school attendance rates of homeless students.
According to the Institute for Children and Poverty (2001),
homeless families in New York City typically move twice a
year, or 12 times the rate of the average American family. The
Institute also reports that one-half of the homeless children
in New York City are under the age of 5, and 41 percent of
those do not attend preschool. More than one-fourth of the
parents of school-age children report that they have problems
enrolling their children in school.
Homeless families reside not only in urban centers, but also
in rural regions. A survey of homeless families in Kentucky,
Tennessee, and the Carolinas found that although almost all of
the homeless school-age children were enrolled in school, more
than one-half of the children had changed schools in the past
year, and 19 percent had changed schools twice or more
(Institute for Children and Poverty, 2000). Further, one-third
had missed more than 10 days of school; of those, one-fourth
had missed a month or more.
Families in Turmoil
Besides frequent relocation, the typical homeless student
faces a chaotic family life. Cauce (2000) reports that most of
the homeless children she studied had stopped living with
their fathers by school age and were placed outside the family
prior to adolescence. In many cases, parents physically or
sexually abused these children. More than two-thirds of the
children in the sample had mental health problems.
Kelly, Buehlman, and Caldwell (2000) found that homeless women
with young children were likely to show a high level of
depression and disruptive patterns of mother-child
interaction, which often left the children with serious
developmental, emotional, and learning problems. One-half of
the homeless children they studied were developmentally
delayed, compared to 16 percent of poor but housed children.
Further, the homeless children experienced emotional and
behavioral problems at a rate three to four times that
expected in the general population.
Koblinsky, Gordon, and Anderson (2000) confirm these findings
in their research. They discovered that homeless students had
significantly more behavioral problems in school than did
their housed peers.
How might schools intervene and help homeless students
overcome these obstacles to learning? The literature offers
Strawser, Markos, Yamaguchi, and Higgins (2000) found that
school counselors can play a major role in helping homeless
students. For example, counselors can assess the individual
needs of each child, help families learn about available
services, and train teachers and others on issues affecting
In addition to school counselors, Markward and Biros (2001)
point out that school social workers play a vital role in
creating education opportunities for homeless children—for
example, by advocating for funding for family housing and
evaluating resources and services to determine their
Davey, Penuel, Allison-Tant, and Rosner (2000) write that the
Home, Education, Readiness, and Opportunity (HERO) program,
developed in 1993 in Nashville, Tennessee, has shown much
promise. This program uses a database to track the attendance
and current addresses of homeless students. In addition, the
program provides parent training, after-school tutoring at
shelters, school supplies and clothing, opportunities for
parents to have meaningful interactions with children, and
places in the community where students can play with their
friends and peers. The project also includes summer programs
that focus on fostering students' social development.
School principal Juanita Fagan (2001) has created a successful
program designed to assist the homeless students who attend
her school. The school-based program includes meals, showers,
clean clothes, and extended after-school activities.
Children from homeless families have substantial obstacles to
overcome when they enter the classroom. By being sensitive to
the special needs presented by these children, school
personnel can help to remove barriers to learning and provide
equal opportunities for some of our neediest students.
Cauce, A. (2000). The characteristics and mental health of
homeless adolescents: Age and gender differences. Journal of
Emotional & Behavioral Disorders, 8(4), 230–239.
Davey, T., Penuel, W., Allison-Tant, E., & Rosner, A. (2000).
The HERO program: A case for school social work services.
Social Work in Education, 22(3), 177–190.
Fagan, J. (2001). There's no place like school. Principal,
Institute for Children and Poverty. (2000). The other America:
Homeless families in the shadow of the new economy. New York:
Institute for Children and Poverty. (2001). Déjà vu: Family
homelessness in New York City. New York: Author. Available:
Kelly, J., Buehlman, K., & Caldwell, K. (2000). Training
personnel to promote quality parent-child interaction in
families who are homeless. Topic in Early Childhood Special
Education, 20(3), 174–185.
Koblinsky, S., Gordon, A., & Anderson, E. (2000). Changes in
the social skills and behavior problems of homeless children
during the preschool years. Early Education & Development,
Markward, M., & Biros, E. (2001). McKinney revisited:
Implications for social work. Children and Schools, 23(3),
National Coalition for the Homeless. (1999). Education of
homeless children and youth. (NCH Fact Sheet #10). [Online].
Smith, A. C., & Smith, D. I. (2001). Emergency and
transitional shelter population: 2000 (Census 2000 special
reports). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce.
Strawser, S., Markos, P., Yamaguchi, B., & Higgins, K. (2000).
A new challenge for school counselors: Children who are
homeless. Professional School Counseling, 3(3), 162–171.
John H. Holloway is Project Director, Educational Testing
Service, Princeton, NJ 08541;