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The State of Homeless Children in the United States

By Brenda Kabler and Elana Weinstein

For additional information, NASP members can listen to a podcast on homelessness.

Across America, the numbers of homeless children and families are growing as a result of many factors including the recent economic crisis, home foreclosures, and natural disasters. The National Center on Family Homelessness released a new report in March 2009, entitled "America's Youngest Outcasts: State Report Card on Child Homelessness," documenting that 1 child in 50 is homeless in America—more than 1.5 million children each year.

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, Title X, Part C, of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires that states ensure that homeless children have access to a free, appropriate public education and that school districts provide child homelessness data to the federal government. The U.S. Department of Education requires that all state education agencies and/or local education agencies collect and submit information about the number of children who were identified as homeless and are enrolled in local school districts in the state over the course of an academic year (The National Center for Homeless Education, 2009). This is currently the only system that comprehensively assesses the number of homeless children. The McKinney-Vento data collection system counts all children and youth whose primary nighttime residence at the time of enrollment was a shelter, motel, temporary arrangement in the housing for other people due to the loss of permanent housing or economic hardship, or any other situation that falls within the Act's definition of "homeless."

The McKinney-Vento school data have various limitations. Although all school districts are required to identify homeless children who are enrolled there, continued lack of awareness of homelessness and its definition among school personnel leads to underreporting in many school districts. Twenty-three percent of local education agencies did not submit data for their State Report Cards, which results in the question of whether the resulting data are comprehensive enough to present a true picture of the extent of child homelessness in America today. The most recent data available for the Report Card was from the 2005–2006 school year. In addition, the McKinney-Vento school data do not provide information about race and ethnicity; therefore, Census data for children living in poverty were used as a proxy measure to estimate the ethnicity of children who are homeless.

Child Homeless Statistics

Approximately 1,555,360 children living in families had no place to call home in 2005–2006 (The National Center on Family Homelessness [NCFH], 2009). Fifty-eight percent of homeless children are over the age of 6; of those, 77% are in kindergarten through eighth grade and almost 23% are in grades 9 through 12. More than 1 in 7 children have moderate to severe health conditions, including asthma, traumatic stress (almost 1 in 18 homeless children are members of families where adults hit or throw things), and emotional disturbance (1 in 6 homeless children suffer from emotional disturbances). Homelessness itself can make children sick. Losing one's home can cause illness and aggravate previously existing health conditions for homeless children who are already in poorer health than their housed peers (NCFH, 1999). Poor health for homeless children begins at birth with lower birth weights and more required specialty care (Weinreb, Goldberg, Bassuk, & Perloff, 1998). Homeless children have less access to medical and dental care (Parker et al., 1991). Proficiency rates in reading and math for children who are homeless are on average 16% lower than the scores for all students and fewer than 25% of homeless children graduate from high school (NCFH, 1999). Eleven percent of American children living in poverty are homeless (NCFH, 2009).

Families living in poverty are forced every day to make decisions about scarce resources. When family budgets are stretched so that a family must decide between buying groceries or paying rent, any unexpected event can result in that family becoming homeless. According to the Report Card (NCFH, 2009), requests for food aid have risen from 20% to 40% in 2008 and food programs have turned away people who are hungry. Children without homes are twice as likely as other children to experience hunger and more than one third of homeless children have been forced to skip meals. Two thirds of homeless children worry that they will not have enough to eat.

Across the United States, the geographic distribution of homeless children is uneven. In 2005–2006, almost 75% of all identified homeless children in America were clustered in 11 states. The 2005 hurricanes resulted in many families losing their homes. At this time, the highest number of homeless children lived in Louisiana, New Mexico, Arkansas, Georgia, and Texas (NCFH, 2009).

Role of School Psychologists

School psychologists have training in a diverse range of skills that can benefit the homeless population within a school setting and they can play a valuable role in working with homeless children. Initially, school psychologists need background knowledge of this population in order to be able to work with other school personnel.

It is important for school psychologists to be aware of the diversity in the homeless population. In general, homeless children have difficulties and problems similar to children living in poverty (Buckner, 2008; Shinn et al., 2008); these children are exposed to many risk factors and continuous stress from not having their basic needs, such as food, shelter, and safety, met. In a school, it is vital to recognize that many homeless children lack exposure to early childhood education, are transitory (Shinn et al.), and attend many schools for brief periods of time (Morris & Butt, 2003). These children may not attend school consistently because they constantly move to find shelter, lack necessary papers and medical records for school entry (Hicks-Coolick, Burnside-Eaton, & Ardith, 2003), lack transportation, or are ashamed of their situation (Morris & Butt, 2003). School psychologists need to advocate for the homeless population by helping families access services both in school and in the community, providing assessments aimed at educational programs and services, and working with parents to help them make connections for services for their children.

Working with school personnel. School psychologists need to share their knowledge and work collaboratively with other school personnel to best assist homeless children. In order to target their needs, it is most important at the outset to identify which children are homeless because they may be "hidden" within a school (Kidd & Scrimenti, 2004). School personnel can work with the school nurse (Weinreb, Nicholson, Williams, & Anthes, 2007) to target basic needs such as hearing, vision, and medical concerns. School psychologists can partner with the school social worker (Wall, 1996) to assist with connections to available community resources and can provide staff development (Hicks-Coolick et al., 2003; Wall, 1996) regarding educational needs (such as tailoring workloads), emotional concerns, parent interactions, and sensitivity to the concerns of this population (Wall, 1996). Schools provide the safety, consistency, and support needed by homeless children (Rescorla, Parker, & Stolley, 1991; Wall, 1996).

Meeting basic needs. Before school psychologists can implement interventions that target behavioral, academic, social, and emotional needs, basic needs must be met. Most services provided to the homeless student population are emergency-focused to provide shelter, medical assessments, safety, and food (Buckner, 2008; Hicks-Coolick et al., 2003; Arnold & Rotheram-Borus, 2009; Morris & Butt, 2003; Nabors et al., 2004; Toro et al., 1997; Weinreb et al., 2007). These families are also in need of mailboxes and telephone access for communication purposes and to meet residency and record-keeping requirements (Hicks- Coolick et al.; Morris & Butt, 2003; Morris & Strong, 2004). School psychologists and other school personnel can provide assistance for other services, which can include access to primary necessities such as food stamps, healthcare, and clothing.

Academic interventions. Even though basic needs are often the focus of concern for this population, there is a need for more comprehensive interventions and programs. School psychologists can screen, assess, and refer homeless children and their families to other individuals or agencies as necessary (Weinreb et al., 2007). They can make use of specific assessments and abbreviated evaluations as screening devices (Rescorla et al., 1991) to provide remedial academic services quickly (Wall, 1996; Yu, North, LaVesser, Osborne, & Spitznagel, 2008). Brief screening measures are crucial because homeless students are typically a transient population and may not remain in the school for long periods of time. A Missouri study by Yu and colleagues (2008) found that homeless children have lower cognitive abilities based on administration of the Kaufman Brief Intelligence Test. In a meta-analysis, 9 out of 10 homeless children performed worse on academic measures and attendance than low-income children (Buckner, 2008). This already puts them at an educational disadvantage. In addition, homeless children's academic progress is often below grade level (Morris & Butt, 2003). Homeless children do not consistently attend school because they frequently move and have negative school experiences; therefore, they do not receive a complete formal education and do not receive needed services (Hicks-Coolick et al., 2003; Nabors et al., 2004; Rescorla et al., 1991; Shinn et al., 2008). School psychologists need to educate parents about the importance of avoiding disruption in schooling (Morris & Strong, 2004), and within the school setting, this population can be provided with support for completing homework, tutoring, study time, educational assessments, remediation, and after-school/ summer programs (Hicks-Coolick et al.; Wall, 1996) to promote academic achievement.

Social, emotional, and behavioral interventions. Children who are homeless may also require behavioral interventions within the school setting. Yu and colleagues (2008) found that homeless children display more disruptive behaviors than other children. In a New York City study, Shinn and colleagues (2008) found 4- to 6-year-old homeless children displayed more internalizing and externalizing problems than children who had permanent housing. It is likely that behavior problems result from a lack of routines, structure, and supervision (Morris & Butt, 2003), which can be a consequence of chaotic environments (Rescorla et al., 1991). Behavior problems can also be associated with the development of mental health disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder, anxiety, or depression. Often, behavior problems targeted early have a better prognosis; therefore, it is critical to implement behavioral interventions as soon as possible. School psychologists are skilled in behavioral observations across settings, a relatively quick way to assist in determining needed interventions (Nabors, Proescher, & DeSilva, 2001; Nabors et al., 2004). School psychologists can perform functional behavioral assessments, create behavioral intervention plans, and provide short-term supports to target specific student behavioral needs. Homeless children may have attachment issues related to trust and boundaries due to their life experiences (Weinreb et al., 2007). In addition, this population often lacks strong and positive friendships because of frequent changes in schools (Nabors et al., 2004). Homeless adolescents, especially, may have peer problems due to their appearance and the social stigma of homelessness (Morris & Butt, 2003). These students may lack appropriate modeling and coping skills to deal with negative emotions and social interactionsâ€"issues that can be targeted through interventions specifically focused on skills and modeling of appropriate methods of displaying emotions and interacting with others. School psychologists possess the skills necessary to provide mental health services such as counseling (Hicks-Coolick et al., 2003); developing problem solving, conflict resolution, and anger management skills (Nabors et al., 2004); and self-esteem and assertiveness training for students (Nabors et al., 2001). To deal with emotions, school psychologists can also encourage children to talk about their feelings and regulate their emotions (Arnold & Rotheram-Borus, 2009).

Comprehensive programming for homeless children. One example of a comprehensive intervention for homeless children was provided in the Empowerment Zone Project in the Baltimore City Public School System. This program targeted mental health and health prevention for homeless children over the summer. Interdisciplinary teams provided homeless children with academic enrichment, counseling and prevention activities, individual and family counseling, character education, and vocational training for adolescents. Classroom sessions focused on hygiene, health, physical activity, violence prevention, drug risks, stress management, conflict resolution, emotions, social skills, self-esteem, on-task behaviors, work completion, and behavior. Character education interventions focused on making friends, teamwork, and cooperation (Nabors et al., 2001; Nabors et al., 2004). Parent training, as used in this program, helped parents cope with behavior problems, social and emotional functioning, discipline, and mental health problems, and encouraged positive behaviors among their children (Nabors et al., 2001).

Working with parents. Most often, the parents of homeless children are single mothers. Many of these parents may lack or feel as though they do not have the skills to advocate for their children or use school services (Hicks-Coolick et al., 2003). School psychologists can encourage parents to participate in the school environment and advocate for their children's education, which can increase achievement and provide empowerment (Morris & Butt, 2003). Parents need to know their child's educational rights under the law as well as available services within schools and their communities; school psychologists can make this information available. School psychologists can also provide parent training and workshops to address multiple topics simultaneously (Nabors et al., 2004) and accommodate the limited amount of time and possible lack of transportation and child care experienced by parents. Parent groups focused on increasing knowledge about child development, education rights, school services, school records, community resources, setting goals, successful communication, homework, and behavior are beneficial for these parents (Hicks-Coolick et al.; Morris & Butt, 2003; Nabors et al., 2001; Wall, 1996; Yu et al., 2008).

Advocating. School psychologists have the skills to advocate for the needs of homeless children within their employment settings. They can promote needed primary care services, behavioral health services, basic "emergency" needs, and decreased stigma associated with homelessness (Weinreb et al., 2007). School psychologists need to inform administrators and other school personnel of the McKinneyâ€"Vento Homeless Assistance Act to ensure that these individuals work toward the best interest of homeless children and in accordance with the law. Ultimately, school psychologists need to be proactive by identifying specific goals, time lines, and school personnel responsibilities in order to reverse the trend of negative outcomes for homeless children. School psychologists can also become involved in public policy changes by writing grants (Toro et al., 1997), encouraging early education programs and preschool (Rescorla et al., 1991; Shinn et al., 2008), reducing educational obstacles (Weinreb et al., 2007), and promoting social reform and funding (Shinn et al.). Funding can best be achieved through grants that propose interventions that are both market- and sciencedriven (Arnold & Rotheram-Borus, 2009). School psychologists can contact their local, state, and national political leaders to create laws that act to reduce homelessness.

Conclusion

Because of an increase in the number of homeless children throughout the United States, this population has unmet needs that can be targeted in school settings under the guidance of school psychologists. School psychologists have the knowledge, skills, and training necessary to work with school personnel and parents, to advocate for and access services, and to evaluate students to determine their academic, behavioral, and socialâ€"emotional needs. School psychologists are in an ideal position to work with school-based teams to effectively implement academic, behavioral, socialâ€"emotional, and parenting programs and interventions designed to target the multitude of risk factors encountered by homeless children.

References

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Buckner, J. C. (2008). Understanding the impact of homelessness on children: Challenges and future research directions. American Behavioral Scientist, 51, 721–736.

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