Children’s Hope: Cultivating Successful Homeless Children

Neffisatu J. C. Dambo
Southern Illinois University Carbondale

Author Note

Neffisatu J Dambo, Department of Counseling, Quantitative Methods, and Special Education Correspondence concerning this manuscript should be addressed to Neffisatu J. C. Dambo, Department of Counseling, Quantitative Methods, and Special Education, Southern Illinois University, 475 Clocktower Drive, Mail Code 4606, Carbondale, IL 62901. Email:


There are approximately 2.5 million youth in the United States who experience homelessness
annually, placing them at risk for social, behavioral, and academic challenges (American Institute of Research, 2009; Covenant House, 2016; Project Home, 2018).  Promoting the
academic success of homeless youth is critical to supporting student’s healthy development and
their ability to contribute to the global economy. It is the legal and ethical duty of school
counselors and all educational leaders to provide academic access as well as supports to promote the success of all students, including homeless youth. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to discuss the following: (a) background information regarding homeless youth and how their experiences can interact with their academic progression, (b) the benefits of complying with the ethical and legal duty of educators to advocate and support homeless children and families, (c) how educators and/or school counselors can help promote the success of homeless children.

Homeless children are at-promise (i.e., at-risk) youth who experience situations that can affect their academic growth, career transitions, mental health, and physiological development.

Homeless children have a higher propensity than their counterparts (children who are not homeless) to experience adversity and trauma (e.g., abuse, bullying, stigma, hate crime, academic failure). They are highly susceptible to risks, such as street violence, sexual harassment, substance abuse, school delinquency, imprisonment, and sex trafficking (Bassuk, E., Richard, M., Tsersvadze, A., 2015; Sisselman-Borgia, Budescu, & Torino, 2018; Stone, 2007; Tyler & Johnson, 2006). Each year, approximately 20,000 runaways in America are forced into human trafficking (Covenant House, 2016).

Homeless children exhibit a high need for support, however, they are less inclined to have support systems (i.e., social supports, resources) and advocates to assist with their development and growth (Allensworth, 2014; Covenant House, 2016; Stone, 2007). There are approximately 2.5 million homeless children in the United States that are identified on an annual basis (American Institute of Research, 2009; Covenant House, 2016; Project Home, 2018). Forty percent of homeless people are under the age of 18, and 29.4 million children under the age of 18 are classified as poor (i.e., family SES 200% below the federal poverty threshold (American Institute of Research, 2009; Covenant House, 2016).

Researchers have introduced interventions for working with homeless children, however the effectiveness of resiliency intervention programs within educational institutions were minimal (Masten, Fiat, Labella, & Strack, 2015; Van der Ploeg, J., & Scholte, E., 1997). Quantitative studies conducted with homeless youth illustrate correlations between mobility, income, attendance, and academic achievement (Altena, Brilleslijper-Kater, & Wolf, 2010; Bassuk, E., Richard, M., Tsersvadze, A., 2015). However, there is a limited amount of qualitative (i.e., grounded theory) studies that focus on how the interactive cultures of homeless children leads to their resilience and success. There is also a gap in the literature as it pertains to examining resiliency and skill building interventions that directly influence the success (i.e., academic performance, quality of life) of homeless youth (Altena, Brilleslijper-Kater, & Wolf, 2010; Miller, 2011; Rew, 2008). Therefore, the purpose of this manuscript is to discuss the following: (a) background information regarding homeless youth and how their experiences can interact with their academic progression, (b) the benefits of complying with the ethical and legal duty of educators to advocate and support homeless children and families, (c) how educators and/or school counselors can help promote the success of homeless children.


Background and Theoretical Framework

Homeless Children

Homeless children are individuals who do not have a permanent place of residence. They often live in temporary placements, such as hotels, shelters, parks, with family members, and in abandoned buildings (Childs & Halligan, 2011). Individuals incur homelessness due to natural disasters, evictions, fires, parental loss of employment, poverty, mental health issues, departure from dysfunctional homes, and the transition of being an unaccompanied international minor (Homeless Program, 2011; Stone, 2007). Multiple occurrences have led to children being homeless. Individuals who identified with the following groups have a higher propensity to become homeless when compared to their counterparts: (a) foster children (e.g., individuals involved with the Department of Children Families), (b) juveniles, (c) runaways, (d) lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, (e) abused and neglected children, (f) substance abusers and/or substance abuse dependents, and (g) migrants. In fact, 50% of youth who age out of foster care and/or had been involved with the juvenile justice system were homeless within a six-month time frame of not being involved with the entity (Covenant House, 2016; Rumberger & Rotermund, 2012). Additional factors leading to homelessness include family conflict, teen pregnancy, and conflicts with step-parents (Toro, Dworsky and Fowler, 2007). According to Toro, Dworsky and Fowler (2007), approximately 2.8 million runaways resulted from family conflicts and/or dysfunctional homes that involved child abuse, neglect, and/or parental substance abuse. Fifty percent of runaways believed it was safer to be homeless (i.e., living on the streets, in cars, motels, or with others) than to live at home with their parents and/or guardians, while twenty to sixty percent of homeless youth reported to have been sexually and/or physically abused at home (Bernstein & Foster, 2008; National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY), 2007-2009).


Homeless Children and Theory

The primary approaches used when working with homeless youth have been Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, attachment theory, stages of change, resiliency theory, motivational interviewing, and trauma-informed care (Canadian Observatory on homeless, 2017). For the purposes of this manuscript, the author discussed the experiences of homeless youth through the conceptual framework of critical race theory, resiliency theory, and survival theory.

Homeless children and families have overcome numerous challenges on the micro and macro level associated with their homeless classification. Survival and resiliency theories are applied based on the population’s exposure to adverse situations that require a high level of motivation, resilience, resourcefulness, skills, and determination (Brody, Chen, & Kogan, 2010; Luthar, 2006; Toro, Dworsky, & Fowler, 2007; Varzony, Trjos-Castillo & Young, 2008). Homeless youth and families demonstrated a sense of hope and persistence as they matriculated through oppressive systems and fought for their educational rights (i.e., McKinney Vento Act, Civil Rights Act; College Cost Reduction and Access Act). Critical Race Theory (CRT) emphasizes the continued hope of homeless children and families despite oppressive experiences, inequitable systems, microaggressions, and discriminatory practices (Anderson & Larson, 2009; Bounds, 2014; Creswell, 2013; Haskins, N. & Singh, A., 2015; Kimbrell, 2013; Vega, Moore, & Miranda, 2015). The integration of critical race theory, survival theory, and resiliency theory can be used to improve oppressive systems, decrease social discrimination, support the inclusion and success of homeless youth, empower the voice of marginalized populations, and   drive strength-based programs that promote the development of students’ resiliency skills.


Educational Rights of Homeless Children

Rights of Homeless Children

The United States enacted specific laws to mitigate oppressive educational experiences for homeless children in an effort to support their academic resilience. The 2004 Child Find law mandates schools to locate and assist homeless students. Title VII, Subtitle B, Education for Homeless children and Youth aims to protect students’ academic needs. In 1987, the McKinney Vento Act was established in an effort to address the rights of homeless children to have access to an appropriate education. The McKinney Vento Act requires districts to act in the best interest of the homeless child and to immediately address their educational needs. This McKinney Vento Act was intended to remove barriers, such as residency requirements and stipulations known to prohibit the educational enrollment of homeless children. In 1990, The McKinney Vento Act was amended in an effort to level the playing field. The amended law requires school districts to ensure students have similar resources and educational experiences as their non-homeless peers, which extends until age twenty-one for students who receive special education services. Schools and districts are required to maintain the confidentiality of homeless families, display written information about homeless updates, and remove stipulations that may penalize students due to their financial situation (e.g., graduation fees, fines, activity fees). They are also responsible for ensuring schools have an accessible and designated homeless liaison as well as trained staff on what the appropriate adaptations may be for assignments given to homeless children (Illinois State Board of Education, 2011).

There were some districts and schools who were reluctant to welcome and work with homeless youth and families because they may have viewed homeless children as arduous due to expenses (e.g., activity fees, field trips, school transportation), stigma, and perceived costs (i.e., performance scores) that can be associated with ensuring homeless youth have equitable educational opportunities. Districts expected to incur costs related to hiring additional personnel for assisting families as well as cost of transportation to convey students from their residence.

However, district expenses are likely offset by federal monies, such as Title I funds, the McKinney Vento Act, and grants (Homeless Program, 2011; Symposium on Homeless Education and Title I, 2001). Administrators and teachers had concerns regarding how predicted challenges of working with homeless children could potentially affect their accountability reports (e.g., graduation rates, discipline, attendance, school reports) and evaluations (Obradović, Long, Cutuli, Chan, Hinz, Heistad, & Masten, 2009).

Consequently, there were states, as well as district policies and procedures that created barriers for homeless families and unaccompanied homeless youth to access their rights (i.e., McKinney Vento Act) to an appropriate education (Alexander & Alexander, 2009; Wright & Wright, 2010). Barriers included elongating students’ registration process, placing a time limit on how long they could be classified as homeless, denying transportation assistance, and/or making an attempt to segregate them from the primary public institution (Wright & Wright, 2010). Many of the imposed barriers violated the 14th amendment. As a result of non-compliance with the McKinney Vento Act, the courts required districts to: (a) revise district policies, residency rules, and attendance policies inhibiting the educational success of homeless children, (b) pay fines, (c) hire a homeless liaison, and/or (d) train staff regarding the law and importance of being culturally sensitive.


Homeless Education and the Courts

There were several districts who experienced costly litigation, consent decrees, and/or had compliance agreements due to violating the right of homeless youth and families. The following court cases were in favor of the plaintiff and homeless families due to their rights (e.g.,McKinney Vento Act, 14th Amendment) being violated: (a) Kaleauti v. Tonda (denied educational access), (b) Bulllock, et al. v. Board of Education of Montgomery County, et al (195,000 fine for denying homeless families education access restricted the time they were considered homeless), (c) Doe v. Richardson (restricted enrollment after a certain amount of days), (d) Lampkin v. District of Columbia (fined 185, 000 for limiting transportation), and (e) L.R. v. Steelton-Highspire District (denied educational access). Kaleuati v. Tonda was a class action case where three homeless families brought charges against the State of Hawaii. They argued that policies and structures of school districts in Hawaii denied them and other homeless families access to an education, and therefore violated the 14th amendment and the McKinney Vento Act. The U.S. courts agreed that these rights were not being sanctioned and required the district to revise enrollment procedures to assist with the attendance, transportation, and success of homeless children.

Another case that failed to comply with the educational needs of homeless children was Bullock, et al. v. Board of Education of Montgomery County, et al. Homeless families sued the superintendent and Montgomery County school district due to district policies that created barriers for hundreds of homeless students. Montgomery County school district policies limited the time they would consider someone homeless who lived with other families, denied homeless children access to the district’s educational institution as well as refuted the rights of children in unstable homes to attend schools that were not segregated (e.g., shelter school, pappas). The courts recognized this case as a class certification due to the amount of families involved. The defendants’ agreement was settled with a consent decree that required Jerry West and Montgomery County Board to enforce and abide by the McKinney Vento Act. The district was given a list of obligations to comply with by certain deadlines. They were obligated to restructure their handbook, train and inform their staff regarding the McKinney Vento Act, and establish an accessible environment for the Homeless liaison to operate and communicate with families. The district was placed under observation for two years and was also obligated to pay the plaintiff’s attorney fees in the amount of $195,000.

The Lampkin v. the District of Columbia case was brought to the attention of the courts because the district tried to limit the assistance of transportation for homeless families living in shelters, which created a barrier to their education and parental supervision. Consequently, the district violated the McKinney Vento Act (42 U.S.C~11432 (e) (3), (8) & (9), which requires districts to immediately address the educational needs of homeless students and (42 U.S.C~11432 (e) (1) (G)&(9) to provide homeless students with adequate transportation.

Initially, this case was dismissed, but the parents of homeless children appealed the district court of Columbia’s dismissal. This allowed for further hearing and the court required the state to act in accordance with the McKinney Vento Act. The courts ordered the school district to locate and inform homeless families that applied for emergency shelter within four days, provide transportation (i.e., tokens, taxi) to homeless families to transport children to and from school, and pay the plaintiffs’ attorney fees of $185,000. The court also ordered the school district to immediately identify homeless students at first arrival and to direct families to educational services in less than seventy two hours of homeless identification.

In the Doe v. Richardson case, the district not only violated the McKinney Vento Act by placing stipulations on the time in which students were allowed to register after the initial start date of school, but the district discriminated on the basis of race. This was a situation where a black high school student who lived in a shelter moved to the Middle District of Alabama and tried to enroll more than ten days after the school year began. The state and district denied enrollment on the stance of their policy to have the special enrollment committee individually review all students who attempt to enroll more than ten days after the start of the school year.

Once the board was informed that the homeless student was black, the board wanted to enroll the student in a different district an hour away from the students’ temporary residence. The school district had a history of using similar practices to deny students based on their race and living status. As a result, the Southern Poverty Law Center took the case to the U.S. District Court and the district received an abundance of grievances and negative press. The district agreed to reconstruct their policies and practices to match the criteria set by the McKinney Vento Act. They also agreed not to discriminate, pay the plaintiffs’ attorney fees of $5000, and fees associated with the case.

Similarly, L.R. v. Steelton-Highspire School District case involved the violation of the McKinney Vento Act based on the districts residency decision and additional violations (i.e., Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Americans Disabilities Act) related to the student

having an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). In this case, the Steelton-Highspire School District refused to enroll the student and would not allow a homeless student to continue their education. The district also failed to follow proper procedures and protocol for notifying families. L. R. was a student with an IEP. L.R. and his grandmother (e.g., guardian) became homeless in 2009 due to a fire. L.R. missed three months of school after several attempts to enroll L.R during the present school year. Due to the districts lengthy process, the grandmother was advised to enroll L.R. In the Harrisburg School District. Although he began attending the Harrisburg district, this was not the preferred school of the homeless family (e.g., L.R.), but rather an occurrence due to Steelton-Highspire refusal to enroll the student and respond to representatives, such as the family and Dauphin County Juvenile Probation officer. The district was held accountable for not following the guidelines of the McKinney Vento Act and the courts required Steelton-Highspire to immediately enroll L.R., regardless of any inquiry or assumptions that could lead to a districts investigation.

The Sarah and Seth Doe v. Governor Wentworth Regional School District hearing was also an issue pertaining to residency. The McKinley law requires all school districts to comply with the McKinney Vento Act regardless of funding support. Despite the pre-litigation advice of the state coordinator and attorneys, Wentworth Regional School District refused to conform to the McKinney Vento Act of allowing homeless children to attend their school of origin. Due to the district’s non-compliance, there was an administrative complaint filed by New Hampshire Legal Assistance on behalf of the family. The Administrative law judge sided with the family and allowed the student to attend school in Wentworth Regional School District.

Another residency case proceeded against Carlynton School District because the district denied enrollment to a homeless family that resided in a shelter located in Carlynton District. The Education Law Center represented the homeless family in this case. Judge McVerry approved the voluntary dismissal of the action filed on October 6, 2009, which included a settlement agreement signed on March 23, 2010. The settlement agreement was in favor of the plaintiff due to the districts noncompliance of the McKinney Vento Act 11431-11435. The McKinney Vento Act allows homeless students to enroll in district where they temporarily reside. The defendants settled on paying the plaintiffs’ attorney fees and associated expenses in the amount of $24,000. The defendants also agreed to abide by the McKinney Vento Act. The district agreed to immediately enroll homeless youth, change district policies, update the district’s Basic Education Curriculum/Education for Homeless Children, and to modify district policies to confer with the McKinney Vento Act. The district also agreed to post homeless rights and to notify all relevant parties (i.e., school district, local educational agencies, the shelter, and the state coordinator).


Ways to Support Success of Homeless Children

At-Promise Homeless Youth and Educational Leaders

Homeless youth encounter a plethora of challenges related to their socioemotional, career and academic development. Researchers have continuously reported on challenges incurred by this population, which has included the following: (a) the stigma, (b) discrimination, (c) microaggressions, (d) bullying, (e) low expectations of adults toward low socioeconomic families, and (f) lack of quality treatment and education (Sisselman-Borgia, Budescu, & Torino,

2018). Despite the risks and negative statistics associated with being homeless, there are several children who have overcome adversities, achieved academic success, and/or have successfully transitioned to adulthood. In fact, approximately 64% of individuals who experienced extreme childhood challenges have become successful adults (Meichenbaum, n.d.; National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Violence Prevention, 2016).

At-promise children (i.e., successful homeless children) are generally characterized as having fortitude, resilience, high social intelligence, and adaptability (Allensworth, 2014; Stone and Uresky; 2015). A study by Kidd & Shahar (2008) with (N=208) homeless youth in North America found that an individual’s resilience (e.g. self-esteem) mitigated their fear of loneliness and attachment. Individuals who are successful have been identified as individuals with resiliency skills (Kidd & Shahar, 2008; Rew, 2008). Therefore, it would be beneficial for researchers to examine the constructs that support the ongoing success of homeless children in order to help increase the number of students who have successful outcomes (i.e., academic performance, college and career transitions, socioeconomic stability. Educational leaders are instrumental in supporting the growth of homeless children. . Researchers found that homeless children who encountered welcoming learning environments (i.e., positive school cultures), acquired resiliency, and had a good sense of identity development (Allensworth, 2014; Stone and Uresky; 2015).


Homeless Children and Needed Supports

The education and treatment of homeless children is a critical matter that requires the support of stakeholders (i.e., educators, counselors) to implement preventative measures that mitigate homelessness as well as multicultural sensitivity that promotes students’ healthy development and growth as they overcome obstacles related to life situations. Supporting the stability of children and providing the skills for families to decrease family dysfunction (i.e.,conflict) can serve to decrease the number of unaccompanied homeless children (e.g., runaways, forced to leave) (Knowlton, 2006; Stone, 2007).

Homeless children may experience high mobility, low academic achievement, social disruptions, and behavioral issues (NAEHCY, 2007-2009; Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness, 2008). Thirty-five percent of homeless children attended three schools in one academic year, while each transition to a different school was estimated to be a 4 to 6 month academic lost for the student (Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness, 2008; The Institute for Children, Poverty, & Homelessness, 2007). Wood, Halfon, Scarlata, Newacheck, and Nessim’s (1993) study with (N = 9915) residential children between the ages of 6 and 17 reported that there was a positive relationship between one’s unstable housing, academic failure, and behavioral issues. This notion of compounding factors, such as student mobility and academic achievement was also supported by Masten, Fiat, Labella, & Strack, 2015). Stone and Uresky (2015) study with (N = 2,618) homeless children from 111 schools found a significant relationship between homeless students’ attendance and academic outcomes (i.e., reading, math), while also noting differences between ESL students and students who were identified as students with special education services. It is imperative that stakeholders provide educational access for homeless children and encourage their academic growth with culturally sensitive environments.


Recommendations for Educational Leaders

It is imperative for educators, school counselors, and community members to ensure the legal mandates of homeless children are communicated and families understand their rights. School counselors can initiate community-school-family collaborations and comply with the professional ethics of promoting equity, justice, and the success of all. This can be done through comprehensive school counseling programs that include resiliency components, such as goal setting, extra-curricular involvement, and mentoring.

According to the American School Counseling Association (ASCA) Model, school counselors are to maintain multicultural competence and provide comprehensive counseling services that promotes a high quality education for all students through the collaboration of diverse stakeholders (ACA, 2010, 2005, 2004; ASCA, 2016). Educational leaders (i.e., school counselors, school personnel) have a legal and ethical duty to comply with the rights of homeless youth and families as well as a duty to help mitigate associated academic risks of homeless children by providing advocacy and supports to homeless children and families. It is important to educate all children because “an uneducated child affects the general public” (Alexander & Alexander, 2009, p. 304), while an educated child can contribute to our society. Educational leaders (i.e., school counselors, counselor educators) also have a legal and ethical duty to provide access to educational institutions and help support the successful progression and healthy development of homeless children. Conducive learning environments are generated through positive cultural environments, collaboration, and comprehensive counseling programs that include academic, career, socioemotional, and preparations for adult transitions (Allensworth, 2014; Kidd & Shahar, 2008).

It would be beneficial for districts and training programs (i.e., counselor education, teacher education) to provide multicultural competent training that addresses the homeless population and promote a positive cultural climate through the inclusion of cultural pedagogy. This would help support homeless youth and avoid legal reprimands by the courts. Districts and leaders (i.e., school counselors, teachers, counselor educators, school administrators) can advocate for the continuation of a balanced educational curriculum that supports the arts.

Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) can also encourage alternative interventions (i.e., music, art, play, dance) that align with students’ strengths, interests, and Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. Whereas, alternative approaches and interventions have been proven to increase resiliency, promote social supports, increase self-esteem, improve self-regulation, enhance coping skills, strengthen moral reasoning, and decrease anxiety (American Institute of Research, 2009; Autry, 2001; Boldt & Brooks, 2006; Coholic & Eys, 2015; Luftig, 2000; Kidd & Shahar, 2008).

Educational leaders are also encouraged to help students identify and establish social supports, promote student engagement as well as encourage students involvement with resiliency programs (Kidd & Shahar, 2008; Rumberger & Rotermund, 2012). Districts may include psychoeducation, resource guides, skill building, resources (e.g., mentors, peer buddy), coping strategies, family support groups, implement supportive school cultures (e.g., snacks,clothing), and provide skill building volunteer opportunities that may meet DHS volunteer and/or work requirements for receiving assistance) (Allensworth, 2014; Stone, 2007).


Future Research

Future research may include mixed method studies and longitudinal studies that examine homeless children socio-emotional development, how their emotional intelligence and life skills can contribute to the academic progression of homeless children as well as how academic structures of support can help homeless children to exhibit their resilience and smooth transitions (i.e., school-to-school, secondary, adulthood). Researchers recommend addressing the gap in the literature and promoting the success of at-promise youth by increasing the number of studies that examine the interactivity of resilience of homeless youth, student outcomes, and interventions that promote resiliency and quality of life (Altena, Brilleslijper-Kater, & Wolf, 2010; Miller, 2011; Rew, 2008). Researchers suggest schools construct positive school climates, extensive experiential learning opportunities, and multicultural competent curriculum. O’malley, Voight, Renshaw, and Eklund (2015) study with (N = 902) high school students in California public high schools supports the notion that positive school climates have a positive impact on student performance and have mitigated negative factors (student outcomes) for students living in high risk environments. They found that high risk students were more likely to have better academic outcomes when they had a positive view of their school climate.



This manuscript addressed background information for studying child homelessness, discussed the educational rights of homeless children, and described ways to support the success of homeless children. Individuals who identify as poor or low SES have a high propensity to experience homelessness, which often leads to health issues and life threatening situations, such as endangerment, sexually transmitted disease, violence, drugs, psychological issues, and incarceration (Bassuk, E., Richard, M., Tsersvadze, A., 2015; Obradović, et al., 2009). Homelessness among children can have a detrimental effect on their academic progression when educators are not culturally sensitive and refuse to comply with the law. The McKinney Vento Act provides an avenue for homeless children and families to access educational institutions and a quality education. The McKinney Vento Act was established to ensure homeless children get a right to an education, while the 2007 College Cost Reduction and Access Act (NAEHCY, 2007-2009) served to mitigate barriers that may exist for students to attend college and therefore removed the requirement for homeless children to provide their parent’s information for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA).



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