This research assessed the struggles of homeless children. The study compared the educational struggles of a random sampling of children living in stable environments to children who are considered “homeless.” Homeless refers to any child or youth who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. The study revealed the number of homeless children is steadily increasing. However, despite the instability of a home life, a positive school environment for children and youth impacts their success as adults.
It is recommended to promote community awareness regarding child homelessness and for schools to take on more responsibility to ensure that homeless children are receiving their basic needs. Empowering communities and local schools to look at the positive impact that they could have on homeless children can be a determining factor in how well a child recovers from being homeless.
The Unknown Struggles of Homeless Children
Homeless can be defined as having no home or permanent place of residence. Homelessness interrupts and even destroys many families. Children of homeless families are not given a choice of whether to be homeless or not; they are placed in these situations because of their families. Frequently, homeless children are the “unheard” victims of homelessness. “Homelessness for a child is more than the loss of a home. It affects children in every aspect of life.” (Bassuk, 2007, p. 498). It can have a positive and/or negative affect throughout the child’s life. School becomes the most stable environment that a homeless child has. As a student, does homelessness increase or minimize a child’s desire to succeed in life?
There are many different types of homeless children. Homeless children are defined as: Children and youth who are sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason. Children who may be living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, shelters, or awaiting foster care placement. Children and youth 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. Children and youth who are living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, and similar settings. Homeless children and youth have difficulty in school due to the instability in their lives.
This instability usually results in inconsistent contact with family and friends sometimes as a result of constantly moving from area to area. Each move means enrollment in a new school. It has been found that every time a child changes schools, they are set back academically 4-6 months (Rogers 1991). Homeless children face many barriers in school. One of the most difficult tasks for homeless children is finding a quiet place with electricity to complete their homework. Homeless children are already at a disadvantage and denying them access to the same education as non-homeless children sets them back farther.
“Education is an essential vehicle needed to equip homeless children with vital tools required to participate in today’s global society.” (Bradley, 2009, p. 275) The McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act is a federal law that ensures immediate enrollment and educational stability for homeless children and youth, regardless if they lack normally required documents, such as immunization records or proof of residence. This act also ensures that homeless children and youth have transportation to and from their school of origin if it is in the child’s or youth’s best interest.
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act provides federal funding to states for the purpose of supporting district programs that serve homeless students. According to scholars who examine the issue, homelessness almost always translates into less opportunity to learn. Disrupted school amongst homeless children has been characterized by irregular attendance or non-attendance and by a high level of school transfers. Disrupted school has a direct impact on the academic attainment of children.
Homeless children and youth are more likely to have mental issues and behavior problems than non-homeless children. By the time homeless children are eight years old; one in three has a major mental disorder. Most homeless children suffer from anxiety, depression, or withdrawal. “The reality of homeless children’s circumstances – poverty and traumatic stress – can result in poor mental health outcomes including high rates of behavioral problems, delayed developmental milestones, emotional dysregulation, attachment disorders, anxiety and depression.”
(Bassuk, 2010, p. 500). Many have emotions problems serious enough to receive professional care; however, most do not receive any treatment. The lack of treatment leads to behavior problems in school such as delinquent or aggressive behavior and violent outbursts. Many teachers are not equipped to deal with the troublesome behaviors of homeless children. Techniques such as “time-outs,” student-generated class rules, and class problem solving meeting have been proven effective with homeless children.
Teachers must realize the first step to working with homeless children is understanding the conditions in which they live and providing a structured, stable, nonthreatening environment in the classroom. Providing a nonthreatening environment in the classroom includes helping the children express their fears and frustrations. Teachers should be prepared to hear some disturbing tales. “Open communication serves as a vehicle to immunize children against stress.” (Fodor & Gewirtzman, 1997, p. 243). Homeless children will confide to their teachers in a trusting environment; teachers should not pry. Crime and violence plays a significant role in the lives of homeless children. By age
twelve, 83% of homeless children had been exposed to at least one serious violent event. (Bassuk, EL et al, 1996; National Center on Family Homelessness. (1999). Domestic violence is a primary cause for homelessness among women and children. A typical homeless family is composed of a single mother with two or three children, often younger than 6 years old. (Bassuk, 2010, p. 497). 15% have seen their father hit their mother and 11% have seen their mother abused by a male partner. (Bassuk, EL et al, 1996; National Center on Family Homelessness. (1999). Homeless children who witness violence are more likely than those who have not to have a greater acceptance of violence as a means of resolving conflict.
Some homeless youth become perpetrators and victims of crimes. Most homeless youth, male and females, are victims of forced sexual acts such as prostitution and rape. They are primarily runaway teenagers trying to survive on the streets. Many homeless youth get involved with gangs as a sense of family and to have a feeling of belonging to something. Sometimes, homeless youths resort to prostitution and dealing drugs as a means of survival on the streets; other become drug users. These youth are not concerned with school or receiving an education; 75 percent of homeless or runaway youth have dropped out or will drop out of school. (Murphy & Tobin, 2011, p. 34). “Of all the homeless people, homeless children are most vulnerable.” (Murphy & Tobin, 2011, p. 37). Being homeless, as an adult, is stressful but being homeless for a child or youth is stressful and traumatic.
Homeless children worry about having no place to live, no place to sleep, and that something bad will happen to their family. Homelessness forces children to grow up fast. Due to some circumstances and family issues, homeless children may be separated from their families and placed in foster care; this is an added worry for the child. Findings from several studies provide both a social and psychological context to our results, which confirm that homeless children and youth are socially excluded from mainstream education participation. Family and youth homelessness is not uniformly experienced. Homeless students come from a wide array of backgrounds and living conditions – each of which has particular implications for the students’ education opportunities (Aubry, Hyman, & Klodawsky, 2011).
Positive school environments within the community are an effective way to lead homeless children and youth to successful adult lives. For children who experience adversity, schools are a critical domain where positive relationships both with peers and adults can be built. Schools often have programs that can provide personal support directly to children, youth, and their families (McArthur & Moore, 2011).
Homeless children and youths, who are in school, are experiencing greater stability than homeless children who are not in school. A lot of their needs are likely to be met by services and supports available through the schools they attend. Schools can be an oasis of stability and caring in what can often seem like a random, chaotic, and inhumane world to homeless children. Whiles schools can’t fix everything for students who are homeless; what they can do is make sure that children without homes are not also children without schools.