90 Percent of Homeless Children in School, But Many Face Disadvantages, Studies Find

By Ellen Flax — November 27, 1991 3 min read
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Disadvantages, Studies Find
By Ellen Flax

Previous studies have concluded that homeless families often face significant barriers in enrolling their children in school.

But the new report--based on nine studies of homeless families, their children, service providers, school personnel, and poor people with homes--found that school-enrollment procedures have changed to accommodate the growing number of homeless children.

Nonetheless, homeless children still face significant educational disadvantages, concluded the report, which was based on interviews conducted in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties in California by researchers from Stanford University’s Center for the Study of Families, Children, and Youth.

Many homeless children, the report said, have to commute significant distances to and from school via public transportation because their parents do not have cars or because school-bus routes do not go by their shelters.

And shelters, the report said, often provide a less-than-ideal environment for children to study.

“The recent victories in overcoming barriers to school enrollment need to be extended to other educational issues,” the report said. “Homeless parents need assistance in getting their children to school each day, keeping their children in the same school even when the family has to move, and helping their children find a quiet place to study.”

Unlike a previous study of homeless children in New York, the new report found no relation between the number of schools a child attends and his or her grades.

But children who attend many schools, the new report said, are more likely to have poor school-attendance rates. The majority of elementary-school-age children in the study had already attended four or more schools.

As they got older, homeless children tended to lower their educational and occupational expectations, the report found. And homeless children, the report said, reported below-average grades.

The report, which included interviews with 808 adults and 1,342 children from 596 homeless families, as well as several hundred additional families that used to be homeless or were considered to be at-risk of becoming homeless, found that homeless children were no more likely to be ill than their housed peers.

But homeless children, the report said, were less likely to be treated for their illnesses.

‘Arbitrary’ Circumstances

The Stanford studies, which were funded by $160,000 in grants from the Walter S. Johnson Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, the Koret Foundation, and the Santa Clara United Way, also examined the plight of homeless teenagers.

Only 8 percent of the adolescents studied came from households with both their natural parents, and more than half reported being physically abused at home.

Half of the 50 teenagers studied chose to remain on the street and not to use any social services because they feared the providers would force them to return home.

Teenagers who stayed on the street were significantly more likely to have attempted suicide or to have serious physical-health problems than the adolescents in the shelters.

About 40 percent of teenagers on the street resorted to prostitution to survive, the study said.

Homeless families--30 percent of whom had both biological parents present and 15 percent of whom included a stepparent or partner-were less likely to have a history of substance abuse or mental illness than were single homeless people, the report found.

They were, however, more likely to be younger and less educated.

Economic circumstances, combined with a lack of affordable housing and a weak support network, pushed homeless families into their present condition, the studies found.

Homeless families had about the same number of children as did housed families, the report said.

Chance, as opposed to personal characteristics, seemed to determine whether a homeless family could find permanent housing, the report said.

While formerly homeless families had a better knowledge of the social-services system than families who remained homeless, the levels of substance abuse, mental illness, and personal initiative were about the same for both groups, the researchers noted.

“The process of finding affordable housing through assistance from social agencies seemed arbitrary,” the report said.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 27, 1991 edition of Education Week as 90 Percent of Homeless Children in School, But Many Face Disadvantages, Studies Find


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