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 Article of Interest - Children At-Risk

Equity and 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.

School Interventions
How might schools intervene and help homeless students overcome these obstacles to learning? The literature offers some suggestions.

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 homeless children.

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 effectiveness.

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, 80(5), 36–37.

Institute for Children and Poverty. (2000). The other America: Homeless families in the shadow of the new economy. New York: Author.

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, 11(3), 321–338.

Markward, M., & Biros, E. (2001). McKinney revisited: Implications for social work. Children and Schools, 23(3), 182–187.

National Coalition for the Homeless. (1999). Education of homeless children and youth. (NCH Fact Sheet #10). [Online]. Available:

Smith, A. C., & Smith, D. I. (2001). Emergency and transitional shelter population: 2000 (Census 2000 special reports). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce. Available:

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;

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