As days grow shorter and colder, many children look forward to warm, cozy days at home during their school winter break—a welcome reprieve from homework and classes. But for children and youth experiencing homelessness, the approach of winter break may mean they will not have access to enough food or a warm place to stay. At the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year over 1.4 million students were homeless, with youth who were African American, had disabilities, and identified as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and/or Transgender, significantly overrepresented within that population (Child Trends Data Bank, 2015; Endres & Cidade, 2015; Burwick, Andrew, Gates, Baumgartner, &Friend, 2014).
Any experience with homelessness can cause significant negative impacts on a young person’s wellness, development, and academic success (Child Trends Data Bank, 2015). Youth experiencing homelessness are more likely to witness violence, go hungry, display behavioral issues, repeat a grade, be expelled or suspended, or drop out of school (McCoy-Roth, Mackintosh, & Murphey, 2012). Furthermore, youth who experience homelessness are also more vulnerable to developing physical and mental health problems, such as asthma and anxiety, becoming involved in the juvenile justice system, and engaging in high-risk behaviors including drug abuse and unsafe sex (National Clearinghouse on Families & Youth, 2014).
Collective efforts, national and local, to reduce youth homelessness are hampered by poor capacity to identify and respond to the needs of youth experiencing homelessness, inaccurate data on how many youth are homeless, and scarce research on effective interventions for homeless youth (Altena, Brilleslijper-Kater, & Wolf, J. R., 2010). In 2010 the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) created a comprehensive Federal strategic plan, Opening Doors, which aims to prevent and end homelessness including, by 2020, youth homelessness. To support this goal, the plan provides the Framework to End Youth Homelessness. This framework centers on data collection and building the capacity to address four core outcomes for youth – 1) Stable housing; 2) Permanent and meaningful connections to adults in their life such as teachers, coaches, neighbors, and friends; 3) Access to health care that addresses physical and mental health; and 4) Supports such as transportation assistance, tutoring, and mentoring to help them finish their education and gain employment.
Importantly, schools can play a number of crucial roles in helping to end youth homelessness. Here are a few:
- Screen for risk/protective factors for homelessness.
- Build meaningful relationships with students.
- Stay open during breaks to help provide meals, safety, and shelter to youth.
- Provide transportation for youth to school, public libraries, or community centers.
- Develop partnerships with community and health organizations that support youth and families experiencing homelessness.
- Connect youth to existing tutoring and mentoring services.
- Educate school personnel on homelessness issues.
Like any program or framework implemented in a school, addressing homelessness must be multi-tiered, meaning there should be universal strategies implemented for all, targeted strategies implemented for some, and intensive strategies implemented for a few, to appropriately serve diverse student needs. Students can vary as much as their circumstances around homelessness. For example, many youth experiencing homelessness also experience identity-based discrimination. Thus, interventions must be culturally appropriate and relevant to meet those students’ needs. Also, plans for supporting youth who are homeless should be integrated into other practices and policies already in place. Small changes in existing practices and policies in schools can make a world of difference for the lives of youth experiencing homelessness.