More than one million students in this country are homeless.
The number of homeless children is actually much higher. The U.S. Department of Education, which released the one million figure this June, included only “children enrolled in U.S. public preschools and kindergarten through 12th grade for the 2010-2011 school year,” according to the Orlando Sentinel. As the Sentinel points out, that excludes “infants, toddlers, preschool-aged children who aren’t enrolled in public programs and homeless children who are home-schooled.” It also excludes homeless teenagers who are not enrolled in school. The National Center on Family Homelessness estimates that the true number of homeless children in the U.S. is closer to 1.6 million.
Since the recession began in 2007, the number of homeless kids “in public schools nationwide has increased 57 percent,” the Sentinel reports. It may be that part of this increase is a result of efforts to enroll more homeless children in school (as required by a federal law called the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act), though undoubtedly the lion’s share is due to increases in the number of homeless people in our country. Counting the members of a population as transient (and often hidden) as the homeless is notoriously difficult and a perennial bone of contention between public authorities and advocates, but one estimate, by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, posited a number of 3.5 million homeless individuals in 2009.
As a former professional advocate for policies to end homelessness, I learned about the challenges homeless youth face. Children enrolled in school are often forced to transfer schools if their shelters are in different school districts than their homes were. Already suffering from the disruption of becoming homeless, these students enter a school full of children and teachers they don’t know and may face the stigma of being “the homeless kid.” (The McKinney-Vento Act guarantees homeless children the right to remain in their original school, as the National Education Association notes, but it is not always enforced and “has never been fully funded.”)
Most shelters are not suitable places to study. Families tend to sleep in one room, which is rarely furnished with a desk and is often filled with the student’s family members. Quiet spaces are rare. Some homeless students do their homework on the bus or train to school, if they manage to do it at all.
Other homeless children are “doubled-up” in the homes of extended family rather than staying in shelters. Together with siblings and parents, they crowd in with relatives who may be near poverty themselves. Some children live with their families in their cars or all together in one motel room. Again, these conditions rarely afford students a quiet place to concentrate on their homework.
Another obstacle to studying is that homeless kids may be too busy caring for their younger siblings while their parents are at work or out looking for jobs. According to a study from 1999 reported by The National Center on Family Homelessness, 29 percent of adults in homeless families with children had jobs.
Wherever they are staying, homeless children may have trouble focusing in class not only because they were not able to do the homework, but also because they may not have had enough to eat or a decent place to sleep, and they may be emotionally overwhelmed by the upheavals in their personal lives. Sometimes they may not make it to school at all because they do not have winter coats or shoes and it is too cold to go outside.
Homeless teenagers on their own, commonly known as runaways, are often not enrolled in school at all. Many if not most of these youth have suffered trauma at home severe enough to make life on the streets seem like a better alternative. Two common causes of teenage homelessness are physical or sexual abuse at home (according to DoSomething.org physical abuse accounts for half of runaways), and conflicts with parents who learned that their children were not heterosexual (“approximately 40% of homeless youth identify as” lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered – “compared to 10% of the general youth population in the United States,” according to Safe Horizon).
Runaways sometimes cannot enroll in school without a permanent address (though this violates McKinney-Vento); sometimes they fear that school authorities will alert their parents to their whereabouts. Like children who are homeless with their families, they usually lack a suitable place to study and may be too hungry or tired to focus in class. They are vulnerable to sexual violence and other crime, disease and pregnancy.
Whatever the precise number of homeless youth in the United States is, it cannot describe what their lives are like. To learn more and pitch in, visit The National Coalition for the Homeless, The National Alliance to End Homelessness, The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth or one of the many other local and national organizations working to help this vulnerable population.