CYC-Online 139 SEPTEMBER 2010
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On the outer circle: Reaching homeless families

Donna E. McCrary, Mary Bailey Estes, Tracy Teaff and Mary Helen Thompson

Through the story of one homeless youth, the authors shed light on the unique challenges faced by the homeless. They offer strategies that educators and communities can use to work with homeless children and families and increase their access to education.

Language arts was well under way that wintry morning when a teacher and her students were suddenly interrupted by the sound of someone banging loudly and exuberantly on the windowsill. “I’m here!” Danny yelled. “Hi, Mrs. Estes! It’s cold out here, let me in!” Although school had begun at 8:20, Danny arrived at 10:15. Left to his own resources to wake up, dress, and walk to school from a distance of perhaps a mile, he was late again, and the entrance closest to the classroom had long since been locked.

Why would a 10-year-old child put forth the effort necessary to go to school when faced with the obstacles that accompany homelessness? For Danny, school was a safe alternative to the tent in which he and his mother slept when they were not staying in their dilapidated pickup camper. School offered security, warmth, nutrition, intellectual stimulation, friends his age, and caring adults.

Danny had attended 13 schools in 3 years. He arrived at school number 13 by himself. No adult completed enrollment papers or provided prior records. Danny’s mother had no way of taking him to school because she did not have a vehicle. He longed to be in school, but no one ever knew if he would arrive. Occasionally someone would give him a ride. A local charity attempted to arrange transportation from the shelter, but Danny’s presence there was sporadic. His mother and her boyfriend moved from camper to tent to the apartments of various acquaintances and to the city’s homeless shelter, so he never stayed long within the same district. Mrs. Estes took Danny into her own home in an attempt to give him some stability , and the opportunity to attend school regularly, but he missed being with his mother and soon left.

Despite his situation, Danny functioned at grade level and was unusually capable academically. He liked school, but some of the teachers with whom he came in contact did not like him. Danny’s behavior was typical of a child with bipolar disorder or severe symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD). The banging on the window provides one example. On other occasions he was known to have run around his classroom jumping on tables and file cabinets while yelling boisterously. Desperate teachers and administrators in his earlier schools had taken him to physicians and secured a diagnosis of Seriously Emotionally Disturbed (SED), and various doctors had prescribed medications. Thus, he landed in a class for students with disabilities, despite remarkable intellect and no history of violence or aggression toward others.

Danny’s mother knew that there was a law passed that allowed homeless children to go to the public school of their choice, and she reminded the school of this fact through phone calls. This was true, but because there was no transportation, Danny was forced to enroll in school number 14. Within two weeks he and his mother returned to the pickup camper, and he was back in school 13. Although he and his teacher were jubilant at his return, it was only another month before Danny moved to the next shelter, and on to the next school.

Families that are homeless
Danny’s story is much more common than many people realize. During the 1980s and 1990s, the nation's homeless shelters became increasingly filled by families with children. New York City reported a 500% increase in its homeless family population during the 1980s (Homes for the Homeless, 1992). Bassuk (1992) reported that families with children make up the fastest growing subgroup among the homeless. According to the United States Conference of Mayors, requests for shelter by families increased by 17% in 1999. The conference also estimated that families with children comprise 37% of the homeless population nationwide (Lowe, 1999).

Homeless families are most often comprised of a single mother, younger than age 25, with one or more children (Homes for the Homeless, 1992). Studies of ethnic makeup show that 50% of homeless families are African American, 31% are white, 13% are Hispanic, 4% are Native American, and 2% are Asian (Lowe, 1999; Nunez and Fox, 1999). Bassuk, Lenore, and Lauriat (1986) report that psychosis is not uncommon within the families.

Homeless mothers share characteristics that extend beyond the lack of a permanent dwelling. A large majority report that they are victims of domestic violence or witnessed abuse in their homes as children (Bassuk and Rosenberg, 1988; Homes for the Homeless, 1992; Institute for Children and Poverty, 1998). Other factors often common to homeless mothers include low educational level, poor employment history, and a history of poor interpersonal relationships (Bassuk, Lenore and Lauriat, 1986; Nunez and Fox, 1999). Relationship problems may precipitate a breakdown of mothers' natural support systems (extended family members and friends). The needs of the homeless family often become too burdensome for those in the mother’s inner circle of relationships. Mothers heading homeless families often experience a long history of problems that may include subsistence living, family breakdown, disruption, stress, and violence. The lack of affordable housing that is common today serves to exacerbate the situation (Bassuk, 1992; Lowe, 1999).

Because improvised living arrangements may be dangerous for women and children, families that have no housing usually rely on free emergency shelter facilities to fill the void. Families that make their homes on the street face the common threat of predatory violence, find that it is difficult to care for children, and perceive the threat of losing their children to foster care placements (Metraux and Culhane, 1999). Most families will, therefore, choose temporary shelters as a more stable alternative.

The dynamics of shelter life
Although perhaps better than life on the streets, life in the shelter is far from adequate. A new social world exists inside the shelter that is supported by sparse resources. Those who have already experienced many changes in their lives must adjust daily to a life highlighted by transition and group rules. Mothers and children report that poor sanitary conditions, a lack of adequate food, and a loss of personal freedom are among their major concerns (Lindsey, 1998).

Another concern involves the close living arrangements of a shelter. Living in the constant eye of strangers in crisis may provoke volatile conditions. It is not unusual for mothers to report that their children receive threats by angry or hostile shelter residents (Lindsey, 1998). Instead of producing a “solidarity effect” among the inhabitants, Choi and Snyder (1999) state that most residents and families tend to isolate from one another. Divisions arise among the families with labels such as “undesirable,” “unworthy,” or “lazy” attributed to those who are perceived as not working to improve their situation.

Homelessness also produces personal emotional upheaval. Mothers report that the constant anguish over basic life necessities, the loss of control over their families to shelter rules, and the effect of parenting in front of strangers combine to produce a heightened state of depression and anger (Boxil and Beaty, 1990; Choi and Snyder, 1999). This affects the children, who may become confused or agitated over their mothers” behavior, and behave inappropriately as a result (Choi and Snyder, 1999).

The impact of homelessness on children
The effects of homelessness on children are dramatic. Psychologically, homeless children such as Danny display a variety of extreme behaviors ranging from withdrawal to aggression. Attention difficulties are common in this population. Internalizing behaviors shown by children include experiencing extreme shyness and numerous crying spells, clinging to adults, and having sleep problems (Bassuk and Rubin, 1987; Choi and Snyder, 1999). In addition, these children report low levels of self-esteem and concern for personal safety (Nord and Luloff, 1995; Sullivan, 1997).

In addition to behavioral concerns, there are serious health issues that develop from hunger and inadequate nutrition. Preventive health services are nonexistent for the homeless population. Chronic diseases such as eye disorders, ear problems, gastrointestinal disorders, neurological impairments, dental problems, and urinary dysfunctions are common. Lead levels are also likely to be three times higher in homeless children (Heflin and Rudy, 1991; P. Lopez, personal communication, June, 1994).

As in Danny’s case, many homeless children see school as the one unifying factor in their lives that can provide security and safety. The physical and psychological conditions that emerge in these children may collide with the expectations of the public system, however, to produce an ominous academic future. Rescorla, Parker and Stolley (1991) found that homeless students in their survey scored below average on vocabulary, reading, and intelligence measures. Transportation issues, lack of proper clothing, feelings of embarrassment, the insensitivity of teachers and staff, and problems with other children may create patterns of irregular attendance and truancy (Choi and Snyder, 1999). In addition, sporadic attendance and low academic achievement may result in grade retention and special education labels (i.e., MR, LD, ADD/ADHD, SED) (Bassuk and Rubin, 1987; Nord and Lulofi 1995; Rescorlar, Parker and Stolley, 1991; Sullivan, 1997).

Finding strength in the middle of the storm
Despite their many problems, families without homes frequently cultivate strength and hope, continuing to grow and flourish. Mothers and their children turn to temporary shelters for help and support, and in doing so, they consciously choose to remain a family group. Many families conclude that despite the obstacles, they find benefits to shelter life that help them to maintain their family unit.

Some of the benefits of shelters include childcare services and after-school programs that enable mothers to work or seek employment. Health care services, possibly neglected when families live with relatives or friends, may be available to shelter residents. Legal counsel, afforded through the shelter, often helps those who do not understand the law (Choi and Snyder, 1999).

Mothers who face substantial crises report that they have little energy to provide the extra attention their children require. In the shelter, mothers often find that staff can meet this need by filling the void (Lindsey, 1998). By playing with the children, talking with them, or providing tutorials, the staff supports the mother’s role and helps the family maintain its bond.

Perhaps the most salient positive feature reported among families living in temporary shelter is the degree of closeness that develops between the mothers and their children. The amount of time spent in close proximity creates a sense of closeness not realized before. Sleeping in the same bed, living in the same room, and realizing that family members have only one another produces unusually strong familial bonds. Mothers also report that their children are a source of comfort during a time of extreme stress (Lindsey, 1998).

Creating a circle of support
Although families may bond and survive in the face of multiple problems, they continue to have multiple needs. Fortunately, there are supports that can be extended to homeless families. These supports can help struggling parents survive on a daily basis, and ensure access to education for children (see Table 1 for adaptations of NASDSE recommendations).

Table 1. Providing support to homeless families

Increase awareness of the educational needs of homeless children by:

  • creating posters with Facts about Child Find (, the McKinney Act (http://, and Title I (;
  • using ublic service announcements (PSAs) to disseminate inormation, such as brief announcements in newspapers, on the radio, and on television (similar to Child Find). Information might include contact numbers For schools, immunization information, school starting dates, shelters, and violence help lines;
  • reaching out to parents who may have had a negative school experience. By developing collaborative relationships with shelters, schools can begin to work with families within the shelter. Building a relationship with the families outside the school may lead to a more positive experience and response by the parent;
  • using flexible enrollment procedures to expedite enrollment of homeless students;
  • using a coordinator for homeless education.

Support issues of mobility and enrollment by:

  • providing new students and families with information regarding resources and support services available in the school;
  • supporting the timely transfer of school records;
  • helping parents in shelters update and store their children's school records in a confidential manner;
  • developing district-wide procedures, supported by guidance and technical assistance, For campus administrators to include students in accountability systems. Included in the McKinney Act are policies and procedures for guaranteeing the provision of educational services. And each state must appoint a coordinator for the education of homeless children and youth, who must identify special educational needs of the homeless. To locate your state coordinator, please visit:
  • providing waivers tor students who are homeless to allow them access to programs and activities that may already be filled (e.g., preschool, enrichment, after-school and extracurricular activities).

Sustain advocacy by:

  • including parents and families in the ongoing effort to make education accessible to their children;

  • providing education and training by a multidisciplinary team at homeless shelters;

  • targeting parents of homeless children, shelter providers, community leaders, and the health community tor advocacy training;

Support students with disabilities who are homeless by:

  • conducting timely evaluation and screening to ensure service provision;

  • earmarking funds for transportation;

  • collaborating with other agencies to ensure continuation of services.


  • These strategies should be based on the knowledge that homeless children do not all reside in shelters and are heterogeneous in many ways.

  • Confidentiality and privacy are important to families.

  • Developmental differences, as well as age, should always be considered when determining placement.

Source: Adapted from NASDSE (2000). Educating children with disabilities who are homeless. Alexandria, VA: National Association at State Directors of Special Education.

Danny’s case supports the notion that school may very well be the most stable and consistent part of a child's life when he or she is dealing with homelessness. Schools face a difficult task in serving homeless youth, yet they have a unique opportunity to extend support in a number of ways. Through awareness, training, appropriate assessment, and collaborative efforts, schools can begin to help address the challenges of homeless students and their families and provide educational access (NASDSE, 2000).

A key piece of legislation aimed at supporting homeless children and their families is the 1987 Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, which ensures access to school and school success (NASDSE, 2000). The act supports the belief that all homeless children have the right to a free, appropriate education (Wells, 1989). The 1990 amendments to the law specify that issues of transportation, immunization, residency, guardianship requirements, birth certificates, and records be addressed. In addition, provisions are made for coordinated and comprehensive services to homeless children and their families.

Local school district personnel must be flexible as they seek solutions to the issues addressed in the McKinney Act. Transportation, for example, is difficult to coordinate when families have no stable address. Bureaucratic controls may need to be lifted to help homeless students access school. Special “bus runs” may be arranged to serve children and youth who are highly transient. Collaboration with shelter personnel, as well as prior schools, may help resolve the barriers associated with residency, immunization, guardianship, birth certificates, and school records. School personnel must establish personal contact with homeless parents to acquire the necessary information to ensure access to school.

Goins and Cesarone (1993) suggest that once access to school has been established, other supports are necessary to help children succeed. Practical efforts may include coordinating social services, educating other children about homelessness in order to encourage empathy, offering counseling for children and classmates, providing aftercare between school and shelter opening times, providing housing specialists to work with shelters, and using computerized tracking systems to coordinate records and movement from shelter to shelter. In addition, case managers can collaborate with families, school staff, shelter workers, health care providers, and family support services. Parents need help in negotiating the many procedures and requirements of service agencies, and in accessing health, housing, and counseling services. The authors note that comprehensive support services should be geared to the entire family. Education, job training, and referrals should be made available to adults as well. The ultimate aim should be prevention and early detection of families at risk (Bassuk, 1992).

Reaching out to families
Families like Danny’s are among the fastest growing segment of the homeless population. Parents and their children arrive at homelessness as the result of numerous problems that may include eviction, poverty, unemployment, drug abuse, lack of affordable housing, or domestic violence (NASDSE, 2000). Homeless parents and their children are often in a state of constant stress and may carry histories of reliance upon others, unstable housing, and feelings of embarrassment and shame. To compound matters, many homeless mothers are young and single, and may face crises with little or no economic or emotional support. Parents not only face the burden of finances and personal shame, but they must also cope with shelter life while dealing with the developmental, behavioral, and emotional problems that arise in their children (Goins and Cesarone, 1993). These parents and their children face multiple physical, psychological, and cognitive difficulties. Although many are quite resilient despite the problems associated with homelessness, they need a circle of support and assistance.

It is important to remember that homeless children, their siblings, and their parents are still families, despite the range of struggles each faces. The circumstances of homelessness may indeed build strong bonds between family members, yet the families” success may depend upon the consistent and continuous delivery of comprehensive supports by others (NASDSE, 2000).

We must find ways to bridge the gaps between the needs of families and the services that have been created to help them. We must intervene as early as possible by offering support and collaborative opportunities, while also identifying the bonds that keep families together and helping to make those bonds stronger. Community institutions, such as schools, churches, synagogues, and other community-based support structures, have the unique opportunity to meet the challenges of a family such as Danny’s and help lead them from the fringes to the center of a caring circle of concern.


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Bassuk, E., Lenore, R. and Lauriat, A. (1986). Characteristics of sheltered homeless families. American Journal of Public Health, 76, 9. pp. 1097-1101.

Bassuk, E. and Rosenberg, L, (1988). Why does family homelessness occur? A case-control study. American Journal of Public Health, 76,7. pp. 783-787.

Bassuk, E. and Rubin, L. (1987). Homeless children: A neglected population. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 5 7, 2. pp. 279-286.

Boxil, N. A. and Beaty, A. L. (1990). Mother/child interactions among homeless women and their children in public night shelters in Atlanta, Georgia. Child and Youth Services, 14, 1. pp. 49-64.

Choi, N. and Snyder, L. (1999). Homeless families with children. A subjective experience of homelessness. New York: Springer.

Goins, B. and Cesarone, B. (1993). Homeless children: Meeting the educational challenges. Urbana, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 356 099)

Heflin, J. and Rudy, K. (1991). Homeless and in need of special education. (Report No. R188062007). Reston, VA: The Council For Exceptional Children. (ERIC Document Re- production Service No. P353)

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Lindsey, E. (1998). The impact of homelessness and shelter life on family relationships. Family Relations, 4 7, 3. pp., 243-252.

Lowe, E. (1999). A status report on hunger and homelessness in Americas cities. The United States Conference of Mayors (1-108).

Metraux, S. and Culhane, D. (1999). Family dynamics, housing, and recurring homelessness among women in NewYork City homeless shelters. Journal of Family Issues, 20, 3. pp. 371-396.

NASDSE (2000). Educating children with disabilities who are homeless. Alexandria, VA: National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

Nord, M. and Luloif A. (1995). Homeless children and their families in New Hampshire: A rural perspective. Social Service Review, 69, 3. pp. 461-178.

Nunez, R. and Fox, C. (1999). A snapshot of family homelessness across America. Political Science Quarterly, 114, 2. pp. 289-307.

Rescorla, L., Parker, R. and Stolley, R (1991). Ability, achievement, and adjustment in homeless children. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 61, 2. pp. 21o-220.

Sullivan, L. (1997). The impact of homelessness on children. New York: Garland.

Wells, A. S. (1989). Educating homeless children (Report No. EDO–UD-89-2). New York: Teachers College, Columbia University. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 308 276)

This feature: McCrary, D.E.; Estes, M.B.; Teaff, T. and Thompson, M.H. (2001). On the outer circle: Reaching homeless families. Reaching Today’s Youth, 5, 3. pp. 52-56.

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