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Addressing the Educational Needs of Homeless Students

By Martha Ellen Wynne, Ashley Etzel Ausikaitis, & The Loyola University Home-School-Community Research Team

Homelessness has long been a concern throughout the United States. In the Department of Housing and Urban Development's 2012 Point in Time Estimate of Homelessness, on a given night in 2012, there were 633,782 homeless people in the United States. This statistic includes 239,403 homeless families. During the 2011–2012 school year, the U.S. Department of Education (National Center for Homeless Education [NCHE], 2012) found that the number of homeless students hit a record high at 1,065,794. Demographic studies of people experiencing homelessness indicate more homeless families identify as racial minorities than homeless adults without children (Anooshian, 2005). Furthermore, African American families are disproportionately represented among homeless families with children when compared to the overall population of the United States. In 2010, approximately 39% of sheltered homeless families with children were African American, although such families made up just 14% of U.S. families with children (NCHE, 2012).

In addition to families, statisticians separately account for youth who are homeless and living apart from their families either because they have run away or they are pushed out of their homes. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) youth are particularly vulnerable to emotional–physical rejection by their families resulting in forced homelessness (Rivers & D'Augelli, 2001). According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness (2012), it is estimated that there are 380,000 unaccompanied youth who remain away from home for a week or longer; of that group, it is estimated that 327,000 are temporarily disconnected from home, 29,000 are unstably connected, and 24,000 are chronically disconnected. These numbers are only estimates because it is extremely difficult to capture a highly mobile group accurately. Furthermore, research indicates that 20% to 40% of unaccompanied youth identify as LGBT, which is clearly disproportionate to the overall estimate of LGBT individuals in the U.S. population (Ray, 2006). Given the large number of homeless children and adolescents in our society, the purpose of this article is to review the literature on how homelessness impacts schooling, review the law that protects homeless students and their families, and provide some research-based suggestions for school psychologists to use in helping the students in their schools who are facing homelessness.

Impact of Homelessness on Schooling

Homeless students face significant challenges within the educational system. Compared to their housed peers, they tend to lag behind academically and have higher retention and dropout rates (Murphy & Tobin, 2011). Homeless children exhibit delays at four times the rate of children in stable housing, especially in the domains of social– emotional functioning and academic achievement (Samuels, Shinn, & Buckner, 2010).

There are many similarities between the effects of homelessness and the effects of poverty. However, for several decades, studies have shown that even when controlling for the effects of income, homeless children are found to have more physical and mental health problems than children with stable housing (Kiesler, 1991; Park, Fertig, & Allison, 2011). For example, depression is the most commonly reported psychological effect of homelessness, and children who are homeless experience depression at a higher rate than housed peers (Murphy & Tobin, 2011). Furthermore, children and youth are more likely to experience negative health outcomes due to homelessness than their adult counterparts. For example, they are more susceptible to infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and whooping cough and to chronic illnesses such as asthma and anemia than domiciled youth (Murphy & Tobin, 2011; National Center on Family Homelessness, 2009). Additionally, homeless youth are more prone to dermatological issues such as lice and scabies (Karbanow, 2004).

It seems that instability and poor living conditions exacerbate the negative effects of poverty on children who are homeless. These compounding negative effects inherent in being homeless also are associated with instability in schooling. Research over many years has shown that when children change schools, they are set back academically 4−6 months (Rogers 1991; Biggar, 2001; Aviles de Bradley, 2008). Therefore, moving twice in one school year effectively limits progress to such an extent that a whole school year of academic achievement may be lost.

The McKinney-Vento Act

Given these alarming statistics and the potentially devastating effect of homelessness on educational opportunities for youth, particularly those of color (Aviles de Bradley, 2008), federal legislation was passed more than 20 years ago in an attempt to address problems of homeless students and their families. The major law developed to support homeless families and keep homeless students in school is called the McKinney–Vento Act (McK-V). The McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act [42 U.S.C. §11431 et seq.], first authorized by Congress in 1987 (and most recently reauthorized in 2007 as part of No Child Left Behind), was created with the intent of providing educational access and stability for highly mobile children and youth. Advocacy efforts are needed to assist those who are most vulnerable to the effects of homelessness. In order for school psychologists to serve in such an advocacy role and work effectively for students who are homeless, a basic knowledge of the federal law that is designed to protect this population is important. As advocates for students, it is logical that school psychologists would want to comply with any legislation designed to help the students and families they serve, but the lack of specificity in the McK-V Act makes it very difficult to implement. Unlike IDEIA, under which school districts have a proactive obligation to seek out and identify children who may have disabilities (child find), the McK-V Act requires self-identification by the family or youth who is homeless to initiate services. Therefore, understanding who is considered to be homeless under the law is a very important first step for both families and the school staff members who want to help them.

The McK-V Act gives several definitions of homelessness for students. These include: sharing the residence of others due to loss of housing or economic hardship (being “doubled up”); living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, camping grounds, or other substandard housing; living in emergency or transitional shelters; or living in cars, parks, bus or train stations, abandoned buildings, or any other public or private places not designed for humans to live. In addition, children awaiting foster care placement and the children of migratory workers are also covered under the definition. The McK-V Act identifies three different types of children who are protected: preschool-age children, school-age children, and unaccompanied youth.

Families and youth who are identified as homeless have specific rights under the law. The primary provision of the McK-V Act mandates schools to enroll students who identify as homeless without requiring proof of residency or medical records within 48 hours [42 U.S.C. §11431.723(d)]. Homeless students and their families are given a choice of continuing to attend their school of origin for the remainder of the school year until they are permanently housed or transferring to the school nearest to their current location. After students are enrolled in a new school or identified as homeless in their school of origin, schools must provide assistance with school supplies, fee waivers, and transportation [42 U.S.C. §11431.723(2)]. The school district must pay for transportation to either the school of origin or the new school and must provide this access within 48 hours of notification. Additionally, homeless children suspected of having disabilities are entitled to expedited evaluations for special services; however, the law does not specify what “expedited” means.

The McK-V Act also mandates at least one homeless liaison to coordinate services within each school district, though some urban systems may appoint an additional liaison for schools experiencing high rates of homelessness within the community. However, this position is unfunded and is considered an extra duty. The liaison's responsibilities include ensuring that children and youth who identify as homeless receive full and equal opportunity to succeed in school. This involves securing priority enrollment in Head Start or other preschool programs as well as making referrals for health, mental health, and other services. However, the McK-V Act does not define how schools should be held accountable for complying with the provisions of the law. Unlike IDEIA, very few specific definitions or implementing regulations exist in the McK-V Act, and there are no mechanisms for determining when services have or have not been adequately delivered. This has led some to refer to the McK-V Act as aspirational legislation.

Transportation. The overarching goal of the McK-V Act is to provide stability for children who are homeless. In order to achieve this McK-V goal, school districts must use transportation services to keep education as a stable feature in the lives of homeless children. However, it appears to be far easier to provide the right to transportation in written legislation than it is for school districts to enact it (Morris & Butt, 2003; Aviles de Bradley, 2008). Depending upon the urban/suburban/rural composition of the school district's community, transportation issues that families and youth face will vary. In areas where many children are transported by school bus, districts will need to arrange different bus routes or individual transportation services for homeless students. In large urban settings, school districts often attempt to utilize the mass transit system to transport their homeless students. This becomes a major issue for parents who have to take significant amounts of time out of their day to accompany their children to and from school on public busses and trains, leaving them little time to find employment or participate in job training. Additionally, it creates a safety risk for children who are old enough to travel alone, but must travel through dangerous neighborhoods, particularly in the winter when darkness comes early. McK-V provides for door-to-door transport in “hardship” situations; however, it does not define hardship.

What School Psychologists Can Do

For the past 3 years, Loyola University of Chicago's Home School Community research team has been conducting focus groups with parents and unaccompanied youth who are homeless in an attempt to determine the effectiveness of the McK-V Act from the perspectives of the recipients of the law. In order to help school psychologists and other staff more effectively implement the intent of the McK-V Act, we took our understanding of the law and asked parents and youth living in homeless shelters and transitional living facilities about their experiences in accessing education in schools. School psychologists are in a prime position to advocate for homeless children and youth in the schools as they work with both students and parents and can collaborate with staff and administrators.

Based on our understanding of the literature and the information obtained in our focus groups, we have developed some suggestions and resources for school psychologists and other school staff members to help them implement the McK-V Act in a more comprehensive and socially just manner than mandated by the basic requirements written into the law. Our research team developed a website that contains downloadable resources for school psychologists and other school professionals (www.school resourcesforhomelessfamilies.org). Many of the resources we mention in the following section are available on this website; these items will be indicated with an asterisk.

Enrollment and universal screening. Families and youth cannot receive services mandated by the McK-V Act unless they self-identify as homeless. This leaves many families and the majority of unaccompanied youth unidentified due to their lack of knowledge of the law and their attempts to avoid stigmatization associated with homelessness. Therefore, we recommend utilizing universal screeners* similar to the forms used to ask about eligibility for free and reduced price lunch programs. These screeners could be given to all families in registration packets without regard to their likelihood of qualifying as homeless. This would help inform parents who are homeless about their rights without requiring them to make an individual request, which would often have to occur in a public place such as the main office. The screener should clearly identify the person within the school whom the parent should contact to access services. Additionally, flyers* and information pamphlets* can be made available in the main office and other places that parents frequent so they can learn about their rights privately.

Transportation. Making transportation work for families is an important mechanism for maintaining students' rights to remain in the school of origin. While we know that the McK-V Act's policies around transportation are vague and problematic, awareness of the gaps in the policy can allow school psychologists to better serve families who are homeless by implementing best practices to fill in those gaps. If your school is in an urban area and relies primarily on public transportation to maintain stability in enrollment for homeless students, you can collaborate with your school district's McK-V liaison to develop a definition for “hardship” for your district. Through this collaboration, you can find ways to educate parents about what is required for them to qualify for yellow school bus or taxi services. If your school district is in a rural or suburban area, you can collaborate with neighboring districts to develop a transportation plan to share costs and logistics in the event a student becomes homeless and needs cross-district transportation [42 USC 11432 (g)(5)(A)(ii), 2001]. Planning efforts such as these could decrease the amount of time the student is absent from school.

Disciplinary practices. School psychologists can influence their school's discipline policies, especially if the policies put undue burden on homeless children and unaccompanied youth. Some changes may include modifying school uniform or tardiness policies, which can be difficult to adhere to for families who are not permanently housed. School psychologists can collaborate with assistant principals and deans to modify the discipline policy in accommodating the unique needs of homeless students. For example, the policy could provide alternatives to after-school detention so that children are not returning too late to their shelters to participate in dinner. Additionally, in-school suspensions, peer juries, or other restorative justice practices could be offered as alternatives to out-of-school suspension, since many shelters do not allow children to stay there unattended during the day, thus requiring their parents to miss work or job training to supervise their out-of-school child. Schools may want to consider hiring an absentee specialist or attendance coordinator to assist students who are chronically tardy on an individual basis.

Special factors for unaccompanied youth. School psychologists are especially important in helping unaccompanied youth stay in school. Screening attendance and tardiness records can alert staff to students who might be at risk for or are experiencing homelessness. School psychologists can inform all students about the rights of those who are homeless so that students hiding their status can learn about their rights and the available resources. School psychologists can also help students feel comfortable disclosing their homelessness by reassuring them about confidentiality. They can provide youth with both flyers* and informational pamphlets* in the main office and other public areas so students can educate themselves about their rights under the McK-V Act. Additionally, they can advocate for the creation of after-school homework support programs and encourage youth who are homeless to attend these programs or other extracurricular activities where they could develop connections with peers and staff. Furthermore, school psychologists can collaborate with other staff to develop credit make-up options for unaccompanied youth who typically are far behind in credit accumulation due to time spent away from school. Alternative schools could be an option to help students be more successful and graduate from high school. However, eventually obtaining a GED may become youth's only realistic option due to age; school psychologists can counsel students and help them make the best choices regarding finishing their high school education.

Professional development. School psychologists are also in the position to help educate staff, students, and families on the definition of homelessness and the rights guaranteed by the McK-V Act. One option is to conduct a staff professional development workshop* that will help staff know how to identify children or youth who may be reluctant to self-identify or are unaware of their rights, such as students who are “doubled up.” The school psychologist could collaborate with the McK-V liaison to explain the rights for which homeless students are eligible and what steps staff can take if they become aware a student is homeless. An informational session could also be conducted for the student body and families.

Classroom considerations. School psychologists can disseminate strategies to teachers by providing them an informational handbook* that will increase the educational opportunities for students who are homeless. Informing teachers of the rights of homeless students will empower them to actually help their students to access McK-V services rather than provide short-term solutions such as cash or food. No matter how well intentioned these individual efforts may be, teachers need to know how to sensitively encourage students to identify themselves as homeless so they can access the full range of services available to them. School psychologists could provide suggestions for teachers planning supports and modifications for students who are homeless. For example, they could help teachers consider what types resources may not be available to their students who are homeless when they are planning homework assignments and projects. Some of these resources could include such things as measuring tapes, calculators, computers, or Internet access. School psychologists could develop kits with extra school supplies that would be available for teachers to pick up so that students who are homeless can still participate in classroom activities. Teachers can also be encouraged to give credit for partially completed work and to be flexible with due dates.

Our Website

There are many resources available on the website created by our research team (www.schoolresourcesforhomelessfamilies.org) that can help educate individuals in the schools who want to assist homeless students. Resources include a universal screening tool, office posters, teacher handbook, staff development and parent pamphlets, as well as a presentation for school staff members. Many of these downloadable resources are available in English and Spanish and they can be customized to include information about specific school districts. We hope that these concrete examples will help school psychologists better understand ways in which they can implement the admittedly vague McK-V Act requirements in a socially just manner.


Anooshian, L. J. (2005). Violence and aggression in the lives of homeless children. Journal of Family Violence, 60(6), 373–387. doi:10.1007/s10896-005-7799-3

Aviles de Bradley, A. (2008). Educational rights of homeless children and youth. American Educational History Journal, 35(2), 261–277.

Biggar, H. (2001). Homeless children and education: An evaluation of the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act. Children and Youth Services Review, 23(12), 941–969. Individuals with Disabilities Educational Improvement Act, 20 U.S.C. §1415 et seq. (2004).

Individuals with Disabilities Educational Improvement Act, 34 C.F.R. (2004).

Karbanow, J. (2004). Making organizations work: Exploring characteristics of anti-oppressive organizational structures in street youth shelters. Journal of Social Work, 4(1), 47–60.

Kiesler, C. (1991). Homelessness and public policy priorities. American Psychologist, 46(11), 1245–1252.

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, 42 U.S.C. §11431 et seq. (2007).

Murphy, J., & Tobin, K. (2011). Homelessness comes to school. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Morris, R. I., & Butt, R. A. (2003). Parents' perspectives on homelessness and its effect on the educational development of their children. The Journal of School Nursing, 19, 43–50.

National Center on Family Homelessness. (2009). America's youngest outcasts: State report card on child homelessness. Newton, MA: Author.

National Center for Homeless Education. (2012). Data for Students, 2010–11: Education for homeless children and youth program: Data collection summary. Retrieved from http://center.serve.org/nche/downloads/data_comp_0909-1011.pdf

National Alliance to End Homelessness. (2012). An emerging framework for ending unaccompanied youth homelessness. Retrieved from http://www.endhomelessness.org/content/article/detail/4486 No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 107–110, 115 Stat. 1425 (2002).

Park, J. M., Fertig, A. R., & Allison, P. D. (2011). Physical and mental health, cognitive development, and health care use by housing status of low-income young children in 20 American cities: A prospective cohort study. American Journal of Public Health, 101(1), 255–261. Ray, N. (2006). Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth: An epidemic of homelessness. New York, NY: National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy.

Rivers, I., & D'Augelli, A. R. (2001). The victimization of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths: Implications for intervention. In A. R. D'Augelli & C. J. Patterson (Eds.), Lesbian, gay, and bisexual identities and youth: Psychological perspectives (pp. 199–223). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Rogers, J., Loyola University Department of Education, Education Report of Rule 706 Expert Panel presented in B. H. v. Johnson, 715 F. Supp. 1387 (N.D. Ill. 1989), 1991.

Samuels, J., Shinn, M., & Buckner, J. C. (2010, May). Homeless children: Update on research, policy, programs, and opportunities. Retrieved from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website: http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/10/HomelessChildrenRoundtable/index.shtml

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. (2012). The 2012 point-intime estimates of homelessness. Retrieved from https://www.onecpd.info/resources/documents/2012AHAR_PITestimates.pdf

Martha Ellen Wynne, PhD, is a faculty member in the school psychology program at Loyola University of Chicago. Ashley Etzel Ausikaitis is a doctoral candidate in the school psychology program at Loyola University of Chicago. The focus of the Home–School–Community Research Team has been on educational opportunities for homeless families and youth.