This paper concentrates on the plight of homeless students in America. The paper first examines the federal government's definition of homeless in relation to federal legislation. Next, the paper explores the latest statistics and research on homeless youth in America, and also examines the effects of homelessness on youth. Finally, suggestions are offered to school administrators and teachers for identifying and assisting homeless students.
Keywords: At-risk Youth; Homelessness; Local Liaison; McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act; No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB); The National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE); National Association for the Education of Homeless Children & Youth (NAEHCY); National Center on Family Homelessness (NCFH); The National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH)
The Federal Government's Definition of Homeless
The term homeless may seem obvious in its meaning, but a simple interpretation of the word does not work well when developing policies or programs. A detailed definition of homeless is important because it encompasses many situations or scenarios that might not be considered in a simpler definition of homeless, and it gives the proper guidelines to school administrators for classifying and working with homeless students. That is why the U.S. Congress issued in its legislation a legal definition of what it means to be homeless. The U.S. government has for many years given subsidies to states, which then distribute the funds to local school districts for helping their homeless students. The specific legislation is known as the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which in recent years has become part of the No Child Left Behind Act. According to Section 725 of the legislation, the term "homeless children and youth"
(A) means individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence …; and
(i) children and youths who are sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason; are living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to the lack of alternative accommodations; are living in emergency or transitional shelters; are abandoned in hospitals; or are awaiting foster care placement;
(ii) children and youths who have a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings …
(iii) children and youths who are living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings; and
(iv) migratory children who qualify as homeless for the purposes of this subtitle because the children are living in circumstances described in clauses (i) through (iii) (NCHE, 2008, p. 1).
Another important part of the federal government's legislation is that every school district in the U.S. must have a "local liaison" to work between the federal government and the school district. The National Center for Homeless Education cites national evaluations that indicate "local liaisons are an important factor contributing to the success of a school district's homeless education program" (NCHE, 2008, p. 1). Zehr (2010) observes that some local school districts struggle to meet the various requirements of the Act, while other districts have had full-time liaisons employed for years and already provide many services, "from backpacks with school supplies to after-school tutoring" (p. 6).
Although every public school district must comply with the McKinney-Vento requirements, only nine percent of all U.S. school districts actually receive any money authorized under the law. Those states that receive funds under the McKinney-Vento Act then pay the money out to local school districts by funding competitive grants. Zehr points out that, even though only nine percent of local school districts receive the money, these particular districts contain more than half of all the schoolchildren who are legally classified as homeless (2010, p. 6). The McKinney-Vento Act has been funded with $60 million to $65 million annually from 2007 to 2010. In addition, the McKinney-Vento funding was doubled in 2009 thanks to another $70 million that it received through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or stimulus bill (Zehr, 2010, p. 6).
Who Are the Homeless?
Hardy (2009) notes that chronically homeless single adults and families living well below the poverty line are still among the homeless, and are growing in number. However, the main growth in the twenty-first century has been from middle-class families that are experiencing homelessness for the first time. These middle-class families are joining the "traditional faces" of the homeless (p. 18). Thus, a disturbing growth trend has been occurring in the United States, and many researchers have been pointing out this trend. Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, observed that states such as California, Nevada, Arizona, Michigan, Ohio, and Florida, have experienced the most home foreclosures, and expect much higher numbers of homeless students. Duffield warns that the combined effect of job losses and housing losses rapidly created a steep rise in the number of homeless students in 2009. She also observed that "Some school districts are reporting spikes as great as 50-100% when a comparison is made between the numbers of homeless students enrolled this school year and last school year" (cited in McKibben, 2009, p. 9).
A report by the National Center on Family Homelessness (NCFH) gave an estimate that in the late 2000's on average one in 50 American children was homeless, though of course the number of homeless students were concentrated within certain school districts. The National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) made an estimate that up to 3.4 million Americans would become homeless in 2009, a 35 percent increase in homelessness since December, 2007 (Dillon, 2009, p. 15). In retrospect, the prediction was quite accurate, and the main reason for the sharp increase was due to the displacement of families by job losses and home foreclosures.
Aviles de Bradley (2008) also notes that the homeless demographic had significantly changed in the U.S. in the previous 20 years, and these changes show "increases among homeless families, and unaccompanied homeless youth." The increases in the number of homeless families started in the 1980s, and the author makes the surprising observation that "the United States has not seen such an increase since the Great Depression" (p. 263). Kingsbury and Horwath (2009) make a similar observation by examining the results of a composite survey of around 1,700 school districts in the fall of 2009. The survey showed a sharp increase in the number of homeless students. They observed that 69% of the districts "said they had already counted at least half [again] as many homeless students during the first few months of this academic year as they did in all of the last one," and that by Thanksgiving 2009 about 330 school districts had already surpassed their previous year's total count of homeless students (p. 42).
This sudden nationwide increase in homelessness certainly stemmed from the economic crisis which began in 2007, and many educators expected to see more students become homeless. McKibben and others predicted that about two million children would become homeless from 2009 to 2011 because of the foreclosure crisis (2009, p. 9). Though it may seem less dramatic — and also much less visible — the economic crisis has been much worse in creating homelessness than the worst natural disaster in American history, Hurricane Katrina, which caused 370,000 school-aged children to become homeless (Hall, 2007, p. 9). Thus, as Zehr points out, "the effects of the economic recession have exacerbated the challenge for districts to meet their obligations to students who are homeless" (2010, p. 6). Hall notes that there is a lot of evidence supporting the argument that America has experienced a dramatic increase in the number of homeless children in the last several years, observing that some studies show "the number of homeless has more than doubled in recent decades" (2007, p. 10). In fact, even as the recession ended and unemployment declined, families of long-term unemployed parents and residents of areas hit by disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, continued to swell the ranks of homeless minors. By 2013, the number of homeless students was estimated to be 1.17 million nationwide (Sparks, 2013).
According to Fournier et al. (2009), homeless students are more likely to be identified as racial or ethnic minorities. They also note that "homeless students tended to have poor nutritional habits" and many of them are "more likely to engage in disordered weight control behaviors such as fasting or diet pill use" (p. 471). Hardy (2009) reports that the National Center on Family Homelessness (NCFH) issued a report called America's Youngest Outcasts, which pointed out that "1.5 million children suffer from the well-documented effects of homelessness, including poorer mental and physical health than their peers, and an average high school graduation rate of just 25 percent" (p. 18). Thus, about 75 percent of homeless students never graduate from high school, and...
(The entire section is 4127 words.)