How is it possible that in a country as affluent as ours a dramatically growing number of children and youth are experiencing homelessness—by some counts almost 2 million kids annually. In fact, in school year 2011-2012, the numbers were at an historic high. Although we seem to agree that children are our nation’s future, their needs have not been adequately addressed in our federal plan to end homelessness. How is it that children are expendable?
Most studies of homeless families (i.e., parent(s) with a child in tow) have focused on the needs of the mothers. Although there has been general acknowledgement of a continuum of risk among children who are homeless, low-income children who are housed, and the general population, the specific needs of homeless children have been largely ignored. In a recent meta-analysis of school age homeless children, we found that 24%-40% had mental health issues, particularly internalizing (withdrawn, depressed, and anxious) and externalizing (aggressive, acting out) problems (as measured by the Child Behavior Checklist). These problems require further clinical evaluation. However, the needs of these children have not been acknowledged, few responsive programs have been developed and implemented, and adequate resources have not been allocated to support these children.
In 1987, Congress passed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, Subtitle VII-B, later reauthorized in No Child Left Behind, legislating the educational rights of children experiencing homelessness, including:
- "Equal access to the same free, appropriate public education, including preschool education, as provided to other children and youth"
- Enrollment without necessary residency documents
- Protection from a separate system of education on the basis of homelessness alone
- Participation in the same programs and activities as other students
Additionally, the Act provides funds to states and districts to assure that these rights are met and that essential services are provided. Although we know that this program works well when implemented, many schools do not receive adequate funds.
So what do we need to do? We need to acknowledge the large and increasing numbers of children and youth experiencing homelessness. This acknowledgment should include the growing numbers of preschoolers—perhaps half of this subgroup—who go uncounted by the Department of Education. It should also include the thousands of precariously housed families with children (residentially unstable or doubled up with family and friends). Schools need to identify these children so that they can receive the services they need. In addition, adequate funds need to be allocated for appropriate services, and practices and programs addressing their needs while they are living in transient settings should be mandated. Specific goals should be carefully delineated in the federal plan to end this tragic social problem. Ignoring their needs only risks losing another generation of children.
Photo by Jeff Olivet