Your Perspectives on Child and Family Homelessness

What We Heard From Survey Responses During Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week

By Katie Linek Puello

During Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, ICPH asked for your perspectives on child and family homelessness. We heard from those who work in education, homeless services, government, advocacy, research, faith and community organizations, and concerned citizens about the needs of this vulnerable population.

For the educators who responded, a common refrain was that homeless students need help with such basic necessities as food, clothing, and hygiene products. This echoed some of ICPH’s research using the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which found that homeless high school students were more than twice as likely as their housed peers to go to school hungry.

Even more respondents indicated that a safe and stable learning environment was critical. This is much needed, as students who experience instability are at a far greater risk for transferring schools and being chronically absent, which can often lead to students failing to graduate high school.  

Several respondents also relayed that access to free academic enrichment programs during the school year and summer would benefit homeless students. “Long summer weeks are often the most difficult for children,” replied one respondent. Summer learning loss is a concern for all children, but for those who have experienced homelessness and are already behind academically, the loss of knowledge over summer break can be an especially serious setback.

But above all, the educators who responded said the importance of case managers and advocates both in school and the community cannot be overstated. These professionals help families navigate available services and assist with school supports that address attendance, special education, and college preparation. The support of caring and knowledgeable adults can serve as a lifeline for students experiencing the trauma of homelessness.

Those working in homeless or community services reported the need for increasing access to trauma-informed services when asked what service gaps, besides housing, homeless children and their families experience most often. “A lot of the students that I service have trauma due to the environment that they reside in—their parents are suffering from mental health issues and reflect their trauma on their children,” explained one survey respondent.

For children and families who have experienced this trauma, positive mental health—including the ability to cope with stress, connect with others, and maintain good physical health—is often difficult to achieve. But the impact of poor mental health can be dire: homeless students attempted suicide at more than three times the rate of housed students.

Homeless service providers also cited reliable transportation issues as another barrier to stability for families experiencing homelessness. A lack of adequate transportation can stand in the way of getting to work, school, medical appointments, or other much-needed services. 

Access to transportation services remains challenging for many experiencing homelessness. Even with the McKinney-Vento Act mandating that homeless students have a right to school transportation, long commutes and funding issues persist as obstacles. Initiatives like The Floating Hospital’s Good Health Shuttle in New York City provide transportation to health services. Similar programs are needed across the country.

When looking at the best way to effectively deliver services to homeless families, one individual working in government suggested “flexibility in the resources available to meet the needs of each unique family.” At ICPH, we know that while homelessness is a national experience, it is a local issue; the needs of families experiencing homelessness differ community-to-community and family-to-family. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

For example, one person working in a faith/community organization explained that in their community, a lot of families experiencing homelessness are living doubled-up with other families. “[Homelessness] looks a lot like children WITH homes for our community, where so many are crowded into the homes of their grandparents or other relatives.” There are many misconceptions about the impact of living doubled-up, but the negative effects of homelessness are similar regardless of where a homeless student sleeps. Lacking a permanent residence and frequently moving between unstable living situations is homelessness.

What these survey responses all suggest is that while the needs of homeless children and their families vary widely, this entire community needs more than a fixed, safe place to sleep. They need educational supports, food security, and resources for health and well-being. Acknowledging the many challenges faced by homeless families and children is the first step to identifying and servicing their needs.