Empowered By Schools: Homelessness Does Not Imply Helplessness!

Family and child homelessness is every bit of a crisis that has not been given the needed attention. It is a growing social problem. We all can do something concrete to mitigate its effects, if not prevent these circumstances completely. One in 30 American children experience homelessness each year. In an average classroom, at least one child is without reliable housing. Social services, health care and education systems have a significant role to play in influencing the life quality of families and children due to the nature of their stated purpose…protect, preserve, supplement, support and empower wellness.

Each one of these systems are tasked with providing essential services and supports to every population served. In the name of equity, there is an assumed equality. The former can’t exist without the assumption of equality. This equality is policy-driven and written into system guidelines, from which assessment criteria drives services. It is needs-based, which also presumes some form of individualization in service delivery. Systemic inequality and inequity has always caused more undue harm than good in various social systems for ‘vulnerable’ populations. Some of that harm was intended, out of fear and ignorance. Yet, the vast majority of the facilitated harm was/is unintended by systems.

To prevent future harm, trauma, negative discriminatory practices outcomes, look to the planning and review process. When conducting periodic reviews of programs and policies, that impact many different populations, insist on an  inclusive multi-stakeholder collaborative.  Don’t plan ‘for’; plan ‘with’!

The Department of Education recently  announced plans to distribute $800 million to help support the needs of students experiencing homelessness under the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief — Homeless Children and Youth fund. The Department announced the state allocations for the $800 million total in the American Rescue Plan and distributed $200 million of those funds several days later. Alongside the announcement, the Department issued a letter to chief state school officers emphasizing the urgent need to use this funding to identify homeless children and youth, provide wraparound services because of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and help enable homeless children and youth to attend school and participate fully in school activities, including in-person instruction and summer learning and enrichment programs.

During this pandemic, it is clear that a large number of students and families have experienced at least one form of trauma. Experiencing homelessness, almost certainly is trauma-inducing, whether or not trauma occurred before the homelessness. We must carefully consider all changes that have impacted the lives of families. Understand the multitude of reasons that families find themselves without stable housing.


red head


Can you identify a ‘homeless’ child upon sight? What about when a child enters the classroom? The answer to both questions is ‘no’. First of all, there is no such thing as a ‘homeless’ child when it comes to school settings. In its purest form, school is a home-like environment. Schools are ‘safety nets’, ‘safe havens’ – places where the whole child is affirmed, inspired and supported. As it is the hub  of communities, a primary resource, if they can’t access ‘it’ at home, they should expect ‘it’ at school. Minimally, educators must consider this, mindful of their own perception to avoid assigning blame or shame.

Perhaps a student walks into class with hair and clothes unkempt or has body odor. Though important indicators to examine, they do not tell us about their housing situation. The most certain way to identify homelessness is through gentle, yet focused inquiry. According to McKinney-Vento Act,  homeless children and youth”  lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. This  includes –

• Children and youth who are:

– sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a         similar reason (sometimes referred to as  doubled-up);
– living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to lack of alternative           adequate accommodations;
– living in emergency or transitional shelters;
– abandoned in hospitals; 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, or similar settings; and                 migratory children who qualify as homeless because they are living in
circumstances described above.

While most homeless students experience homelessness together with their family unit, 8 percent of homeless students in 2014–15 (94,800 students) were not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian. This group of students, known as unaccompanied homeless youth, includes individuals experiencing a range of personal circumstances, including runaway youth and youth who have been separated from their family due to conflict or loss of contact. The group also includes youth living with a caregiver who is not their legal guardian.

little girl drawing on pavement with colored chalk

Once you have identified your populations, take into account the ‘stigma’ and shame that children and families often feel regarding disclosing their homelessness status. While it is understood that current circumstances don’t define or dictate one’s future, some have negative perceptions of these families. A gentle reminder: These are people who are experiencing homelessness, rather than ‘homeless people’.

It is important that, although they constitute a ‘special’ population, there should not be any separation from general populations, nor any other such  ‘discriminatory’ acts that may work against them. Children will benefit from classroom conversations that center on real world experiences of others without pointing any fingers at specific children- to cultivate compassion, not contempt.`

COVID-19 highlighted many social inequities. The very nature of being without reliable housing will magnify inequity. Schools must not lose sight of the areas where inequity exists in society and are to assume the same exists in their own environments. In this case, it is best to begin from a ‘broken system’ approach, not broken people or children.

Schools regularly gather contact information for every enrolled student. Educators, student and parents need open and reliable avenues of direct communication with one another. With unstable housing, remaining connected before and during the school year is uncertain at best. How many times have you had telephone numbers, thought reliable, but found it to be disconnected or no longer in service? Families experiencing homelessness may change locations many times during a school year, which significantly hinders, but doesn’t eliminate, home visits as a form of outreach.

Schools have to be the hub for the community where students and families can come to  for information, comprehensive supports and accessible referral resources. What do you do when you can’t contact a parent or caregiver in an emergency? This is another potential crisis that schools can prevent. Once students’ housing status is identified, schools can provide each family with prepaid cell phones with a set number of minutes each month. It can serve as a lifeline for all. After all, these families are among those most in need of staying connected.

little girl taking online classes

The pandemic has highlighted disparities surrounding devices and internet access. The most poor and some working families, predominately black and brown, do not have devices, reliable internet service or service with the bandwidth needed for distance learning. Schools have been addressing this by providing devices with wifi capabilities. Unfortunately, that is not the end all solution. Parents are often limited in the affordability of web provider costs. This is especially true for the less white communities. Plans are expensive and there tend to be fewer choices in providers in these communities. With few options, there is less competition for services, which keeps the costs higher than in MOST white communities.



Among other solutions, schools can distribute devices with hotspots to students and enough bandwidth/speed to handle multiple users in the home. Attendance and homework completion  can be negatively impacted by insufficient speed to join a Zoom class. Schools can obtain some kind of distance learning insurance to cover lost, stolen or broken devices. These devices are a necessity-a basic for achievement and wellness. Asking for donations to cover extra expenses should be a standard practice, particularly in under-served, under-resourced school districts.

Helping not just students, but the entire family, schools can implement family-friendly universal screening prior to the school year or at enrollment, for identifying housing status. This information, discreetly gathered, is useful for planning supplemental supports.  Distributing flyers to parents, students and around the community, to disseminate information and community resources. Schools may have regular check-ins with parents, which should extend to students, as well.

Younger children must be considered. Issues like baby formula, baby food, laundry services, clothing items can be addressed at school. Partner with community organizations, charities, and various governmental agencies. Grants and donations can help fund your necessary budget. Hygiene and other Activities of Daily Living must be stand alone and fully integrated classroom topics throughout the school year and across content area. Embedding empathy,

Schools must also examine how attendance and discipline are assessed during this pandemic, in response to device, wi-fi and other disparities. Now is the time to closely examine all policies and practices as it relates to different populations. We must keep our eyes on that which may unfairly disadvantage some students and benefit others in school settings. If education is the ‘great equalizer’, then it is our job to ensure just that-equal and equitable learning opportunities for all. With that in mind, we should expect or accept nothing less than the quality education experiences that every child deserves. Schools are microcosms of the greater society.  With a focus on prevention of homelessness in this or any other society, A QUALITY EDUCATION AT SCHOOL IS WHERE POSITIVE CHANGES CAN BEGIN! Homelessness is not helplessness, when schools help!


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