teacher explaining lesson to students

Common signs of homelessness and housing instability

Children and youth experiencing homelessness are often difficult to identify and may go unnoticed by school personnel. Homelessness is an experience families may encounter when they are faced with such challenges as extreme poverty and lack of affordable housing or when a family’s current living situation becomes unsafe or unstable. Signs of homelessness can include:

  • Enrollment at multiple schools, lack of records, gaps in learning, poor/inconsistent attendance, talking about frequent moves.
  • Poor hygiene, unmet medical/dental needs, wearing the same clothes repeatedly, fatigue, hoarding food.
  • Social and behavioral challenges, such as extreme shyness, withdrawal, or aggression; clinginess; difficulty with peer and/or adult relationships; poor attention span; anxiety late in the school day.
  • Lack of participation in field trips and/or afterschool activities, lack of basic school supplies, inability to complete special projects.

Source: SchoolHouseConnection.org

Students and parents may try to hide their living situation because they are embarrassed or they may not consider their living situation to be unstable, as it is “the norm” for them. The fear of having children taken away often prevents families from revealing their living circumstances to school officials.

Unaccompanied youth in particular, may not report their homeless status for fear of being returned to unsafe living environments. Homeless children and youth who are not enrolled in school and are living in places other than shelters, such as doubled-up with another family or in a low-cost motel, can be even more invisible to schools and their communities.

Importance of McKinney-Vento and school for students experiencing homelessness

For many students experiencing homelessness, school is the only place of stability in their lives. McKinney-Vento provides core protections and services for these students that includes:

  • Remaining in one school (including a preschool), even if their temporary living situation is located in another school district or attendance area, if that is in their best interest. Schools must provide transportation.
  • Enrolling in school and attending immediately, even if they cannot produce normally required documents, such as birth certificates, proof of guardianship, immunization records, or proof of residency, or even if they have missed application or enrollment deadlines.
  • Participating fully in school activities and access to all programs and services for which they are eligible, including extracurricular activities, credit recovery, special education services, school nutrition programs, language assistance for English learners, career and technical education, gifted and talented programs, magnet schools, charter schools, summer learning, online learning, and before- and after-school care.
  • Connecting with the homeless liaison at the LEA to ensure access to resources, services, programs (including early education), and collaboration with community agencies.

Source: SchoolHouseConnection.org

How can educators help

Educators play a critical role in creating a school environment that is safe and supportive for students experiencing housing instability, including knowledge and understanding of the stress and trauma that often accompanies homelessness. Educators are often the first to notice signs that a student’s housing status has changed and have the ability to connect with the homeless liaison immediately, and to help collaborate with other staff, the student, and family on other resources, services, and support as needed.

The Importance of Coordination and Collaboration

Addressing the unique needs of students experiencing homelessness requires a coordinated and collaborative approach through which the student, parent or caregiver, the school, social service agencies, housing services, and the public are aware and supportive of families and their children.

Administrators can help by knowing the rights of children and youth experiencing homelessness, and help the school board and local community to become more sensitive to the condition of homelessness.

Principals can help establish a true welcome to the school. Introduce the family and child to teachers, counselors, and other staff, and give a tour of the school. Set the tone for further parent involvement in the school. Train all staff to be aware of the federal law, and state and district policies.

Administrative support staff can help parents at school with enrollment by not bringing any special attention to their homeless situation. Assist parents in filling out forms. Be sensitive that some may lack skills to complete them.

Teachers can help by privately discussing what accommodations exist for doing homework with the student and make necessary arrangements or adjustments. Tutoring can also provide an opportunity for supportive counseling. Provide or arrange for needed school supplies without bringing the needs to the attention of the class.

Early childhood providers Head Start and Early Head Start can help by automatically enrolling children ages birth to 6 experiencing homelessness into their programs. Homelessness can expose families to physical, mental, and developmental risks. Head Start programs can provide needed support for these children and families.

School nurses can help contact the previous school to obtain immunization records and health records. Get verification by phone to expedite matters and share information with staff members.

Counselors, social workers, home and school visitors, and school psychologists can help by knowing the local community resources to be in a position to make referrals for the family in areas like housing, food, clothing and counseling. Make standard forms and information available about key school programs at each shelter. This includes materials on the school calendar, lunch and breakfast programs, and admission/withdrawal.

Transportation staff can help arrange for children to be able to attend the school of origin if in the student’s best interest. Set up bus stops to pick students up at the shelter first and drop them off last, to ease the embarrassment of living at the shelter.

Shelter and housing personnel can help be aware of school-based programs/activities and help parents and children to be able to participate in school functions. Shelters and housing providers may also have programs that support the education of students experiencing homelessness.

Collaboration among these stakeholders strengthen positive connections with families and form partnerships with others to develop and implement programs that will nurture and reinforce resilience in children and youth experiencing homelessness.

Act 1 of 2022 – Assisting Students Experiencing Education Instability

Children and youth experiencing homelessness who have experienced “education instability,” meaning one or more school changes in school entity enrollment during a single school year are eligible for assistance under Pennsylvania law.

Act 1 of 2022 (Act 1) promotes timely high school graduation and facilitates equal access to academics and extracurricular activities and the removal of systemic barriers for students who experience education instability as defined by the legislation. This includes children and youth experiencing homelessness.

Children and youth experiencing homelessness have a right to school stability and other school protections under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. While experiencing homelessness, a change in schools is sometimes necessary or appropriate for the student.

School entities must work with these students experiencing homelessness who have experienced education instability to remove a variety of barriers that could impact their success in school.

Visit PDE’s website to learn more about Act 1 of 2022 – Act 1 of 2022 – Assisting Students Experiencing Education Instability.

For additional information regarding Act 1 email PDE’s Bureau of School Support.