‘Shelter Kids’

By Kirsten Goldberg & William Montague — April 24, 1987 16 min read
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At school, the other students call them “shelter kids.’'

They are the new homeless, moving with their parents from shelter to shelter and from school to school, sometimes missing classes for months at a time, sometimes dropping out altogether.

“The realization that there are large numbers of homeless children is a recent phenomenon,’' says Lisa K. Mihaly, a spokesman for the Children’s Defense Fund, a Washington-based advocacy group. “The image of the homeless as being exclusively middle-aged bag ladies or skid-row bums is no longer valid.’'

Yet only recently have policymakers begun to address the complicated mixture of problems, including education, that homeless children face, according to advocates for the homeless.

And those who have undertaken the task say that the legal and ethical questions involved can be formidable. They include not only questions of jurisdictional responsibility and educational equity, but also, in some cases, the rights of homeless parents to keep their families intact.

Such questions may surface later this month in Congressional hearings, as federal lawmakers consider a proposed $450-million aid package for the homeless. Among the legislation’s provisions is a requirement that state education agencies develop comprehensive plans for educating homeless children.

Though there is general agreement in the Congress that the problems of the homeless must be addressed, the measure is running into stiff opposition from major education groups, who say the proposals contain harsh sanctions that would do more harm than good.

Advocates for the homeless, on the other hand, have strongly endorsed the legislation, which, they say, would ensure that homeless children get the education they need to break the cycle of extreme poverty.

Elusive Statistics

Statistical data on the number of homeless children and adults are not widely available, but in the few locations where estimates have been made, the numbers vary dramatically.

In New York City, for example, officials estimate that 6,000 homeless children are living in shelters or welfare hotels, with up to 4,000 more receiving no assistance. In Los Angeles County, social-service advocates say that 9,000 families, with possibly twice that many children, are homeless. And in Washington, where city agencies do not count homeless children, the number of homeless adults is estimated at nearly 6,500.

Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated in 1984 that 250,000 people were homeless; the National Coalition for the Homeless says that as many as 3 million may now be in that category.

Many of the homeless, Ms. Mihaly said, “are poor people who teetered over the edge.’'

“There are a surprising number of people who are close to becoming homeless,’' she added.

The HUD study also estimated that 25 percent of the homeless were families. This past winter, a survey of social-service agencies in 47 cities--conducted by Partnership for the Homeless, a private shelter network in New York City--found that families represent almost 35 percent of the homeless population.

According to Ellen L. Bassuk, a psychiatrist and author of one of the first studies of homeless families living in shelters, many are headed by single mothers. About 90 percent of the families she has studied in Massachusetts, she said, fit that description.

The statistical profiles emerging in such research have caused many professionals to question whether the resources at hand can break the emerging cycle of poverty, disrupted home life, and educational inadequacy.

“Homelessness may emerge as a transgenerational legacy,’' Dr. Bassuk said.

Mitch Snyder, an activist for the homeless in Washington, has claimed, along with other advocates, that the number of homeless families is actually higher than the estimates.

“They have a tendency to be invisible,’' Mr. Snyder said last week of homeless parents. “They hide, out of fear they will be declared unfit and have their children taken away.’'

Displaced Families

According to federal, state, and local officials, the growth in the number of displaced families is a consequence of several economic and social forces. For example, they note, the federal government has virtually ceased construction of low-income housing, and about half a million low-income apartment units are lost each year to condominium conversions, abandonment, arson, and demolition.

With the demand for apartments high--the vacancy rates in both Washington and Los Angeles are between 1 percent and 2 percent--"the housing market is small for people who are poor,’' said Eric Easter, a spokesman for the District of Columbia office of emergency shelter and support services.

In Washington, city officials reported a 500 percent increase this year in the number of homeless families who had sought housing in welfare hotels.

The city housing department has closed the waiting list for low-income housing, citing an 11-year wait for an apartment. The backlog, officials said, is causing the homeless to stay longer in so-called “temporary’’ shelters.

“We have a decrease in our ability to move people out,’' Mr. Easter said. Added Mr. Snyder, “The problem is going to get worse before it gets better.’'

Education Suffers

Noting that finding food and a place to sleep are keys to survival, “Mother’’ Charleszetta Waddles, the 75-year-old Detroit activist who opened her first soup kitchen in 1956, said that the education of their children is not typically a high priority for homeless families.

But even if it were, said Dr. Bassuk, an education is relatively inaccessible to many homeless children. “The shelters aren’t hooked up to the educational system,’' she explained.

An associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, Dr. Bassuk’s research involved 80 homeless mothers and 151 children living in 14 family shelters in Massachusetts.

“The children come into shelters with a history of failing school, and, rather than being helped, they get into a situation with fewer supports,’' she said.

About 43 percent of the children surveyed in her study had repeated a grade before coming to a shelter, Dr. Bassuk noted. Twenty-one percent were failing or performing below average, and 25 percent were in special classes.

She and her co-authors, Lenore Rubin and Alison S. Lauriat, also studied the children’s level of emotional distress, using standard psychological tests.

About half of the children were found to have developmental lags, anxiety, and depression; a quarter required psychiatric treatment, they reported.

For example, one 3-month-old baby was “listless and unresponsive;'' a 14-month-old baby was unable to crawl or make simple sounds; a 9-year-old boy talked openly about wanting to kill himself; and a 10-year-old boy pulled out three of his permanent teeth because he was worried.

The mothers in the researchers’ studies were also found to be emotionally unstable, Dr. Bassuk said. One-third reported being abused in childhood; two-thirds had experienced a major family disruption; and, although 60 percent had completed high school, only a third had worked for longer than a month.

“The kids are ashamed and embarrassed about being homeless,’' Dr. Bassuk said. “They make up phone numbers to lie to school officials about where they live.’'

Children can hide their situations so well, Dr. Bassuk said, that “it sometimes doesn’t enter into a teacher’s head that the kid may be homeless.’'

Educators Respond

Though their efforts are in many cases only beginning, educators and social-service officials in a number of localities have recognized the special needs of such children and taken steps to address them.

In Washington, for example, city officials last month began sending 3- to 5-year-old children from one motel used as a makeshift shelter to Head Start classes. The 30 youngsters usually spend the remainder of the day watching television or going with their mothers to social-service offices, officials said.

The Head Start program frees the mothers to look for housing, the officials noted, and it gives the children more stimulation. Putting more children in Head Start or other day-care programs, Dr. Bassuk said, “would be wonderful,’' but there are few such programs available nationwide.

In Detroit, the Coalition on Temporary Shelter, which operates a 108-bed emergency shelter and an 88-room “single-room occupancy’’ hotel, sends children to a nearby day-care center. The number of homeless children has increased at the shelter 29 percent in the past year, said Jerrie Tent, the group’s director.

Sometimes mothers delay signing children up for day care, she noted, because they “want to believe they won’t be in the shelter more than a couple of days.’'

Three Schools in a Month

By far the biggest problem faced by homeless children is being sent to different schools as they move around, educators and social workers say.

“The kids go to three schools in 45 days,’' Ms. Tent said. “They leave their school, come to the emergency shelter and go to school downtown, then they find another place to live and go to schools there.’'

In most cities, advocates note, homeless families are rarely sent to shelters in their old neighborhoods, leaving parents with a difficult choice of allowing their children to travel long distances to their old schools, or enrolling them in new schools.

Some cities, such as Washington and Boston, provide transportation for children who choose to stay at the school they were attending before becoming homeless. But in other places, children must attend the school nearest the shelter--where they are often labeled “shelter kids.’'

The dislocation contributes to a high truancy rate among homeless youths. A recent survey by the Child Welfare League of America found that 43 percent of all school-age homeless children included in the study were not enrolled in school.

In New York City, representatives of the school board have begun visiting welfare hotels to check whether children are in school. “The city is making an effort,’' said Peter Smith, president of Partnership for the Homeless.

But in Washington, said Mr. Easter, “we feel it still remains a parent’s responsibility to make sure their child is in school.’' His sentiment reflects the views of many state and local officials around the country.

Federal Legislation

The legislation introduced in the Congress would impose stiff penalties on states and local agencies found deficient in their efforts to help homeless children.

Advocates for the homeless contend that some school districts have used residency requirements to deny enrollment to children who cannot claim fixed addresses.

While fixed-address requirements have been eliminated for many federal and state programs, including those for food stamps, welfare, and health care, local school authorities still have considerable discretion in how they apply their residency rules.

“We’ve gone a long way toward solving that particular problem for homeless adults,’' said Maria Foscarinis, a lobbyist for the National Coalition for the Homeless. “Now we have to solve it for the kids.’'

A House bill sponsored by Representative Mickey Leland, Democrat of Texas, would deny all federal funding to any state that does not “ensure that each homeless child within the state is provided full and equal educational opportunities.’' Under a similar Senate proposal, states would lose only their share of funding under the Chapter 2 block grant.

Both bills would also require districts to conduct extensive outreach programs--sending counselors and social workers into the emergency shelters to locate school-age children, assess their educational needs, and arrange for transportation to and from school.

The Senate has included its proposal in a $450 million package of emergency aid for the homeless. But the House measure is still before the House Education and Labor Committee, and education lobbyists say they have a promise from Augustus Hawkins, the panel’s chairman, to keep the bill pigeonholed there.

‘Denial of Access’

Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators, said the legislation is based on a false assumption that large numbers of schools are refusing to accept homeless children.

“I don’t know of any schools that have actually refused service,’' he said. “And I don’t think that anybody has the data to support claims that this is a widespread practice.’'

But, said Ms. Foscarinis, the lobbyist for the homeless coalition, the problem may be more widespread than the education groups believe it is, based on the coalition’s recent survey of officials in 81 emergency shelters across the country.

At 30 of the shelters, Ms. Foscarinis said, officials reported cases of “denial of access’’ by local school authorities. Because the survey results are still preliminary, she said, it is unclear exactly what such “denial’’ involves.

“But we know it means more than just a lack of effective outreach by the schools,’' she said. “It means an actual refusal to provide services of some sort.’'

The New York Supreme Court in Nassau County last year ruled in a case involving a family in Freeport, N.Y., that homeless children should attend school in whatever district they happen to be living in.

The family had been living in Freeport when they were evicted, according to Edward Luban, a lawyer for Nassau/Suffolk Law Services Committee Inc., which handled the case, Delgado v. Freeport Free Union School District.

When the family was sent to a temporary shelter in another school district, the Freeport schools refused to register its children, saying the family had lost its residency. The judge ruled in the district’s favor.

In a similar case in the state last year, the commissioner of education ruled that children should attend the district they had been in before becoming homeless.

“The law defines your residence as something you keep until you establish a new one,’' Mr. Luban contended. “A temporary shelter by definition isn’t a permanent residence.’'

The law firm has filed another suit on behalf of a homeless family in Freeport that has not been able to stay in one shelter for more than five weeks.

“It’s an absurd situation,’' said Mr. Luban, the lawyer for that case, Mason v. Freeport. “We think it makes no sense to enroll children in a different school district day after day.’'

Activists say such suits are rare only because many families do not seek help. “Most of these parents aren’t skilled enough to navigate the school system,’' said Helen Adams, director of the Salvation Army Youth Emergency Services in Birmingham, Ala., which operates a shelter for runaway, neglected, or abused youths.

Last fall, about 30 children at the Birmingham shelter were denied entrance to local schools after Birmingham and the surrounding Jefferson County cut two teaching positions from the shelter’s in-house school, Ms. Adams said. That left the program with one teacher, who was qualified to teach only math and science.

“I begged the local schools to take the children, but they said they didn’t have the money, and the children weren’t legal residents of the district--which wasn’t true,’' Ms. Adams said.

The dispute was resolved after Ms. Adams publicly threatened to close the shelter. But by the time the two school districts agreed to enroll the children or pay for the shelter’s own school, some of the children had missed four months of English instruction.

Because children at the Birmingham shelter stay only a month or two, “it really is a bureaucratic mess for the schools,’' Ms. Adams conceded. “But if I hadn’t gotten media attention, I don’t think anything would have been done.’'

Sanctions Too Severe

Even if problems do exist in some districts, Mr. Hunter said, the sanctions called for in the proposed federal legislation are “like shooting a canary with a cannon.’'

“What is the point of denying services to all the children in a district because some children are not being served?’' he asked.

Mr. Hunter and other education lobbyists, however, readily agreed that local education officials can and should do much more to find homeless children and bring them into the schools. State law, Mr. Hunter noted, requires no less.

“Every state has an absolute constitutional obligation to educate all children,’' he noted. “If one kid isn’t being served, that’s one too many.’'

But, he added, most districts have never mounted a coordinated effort to find and serve homeless children. “It’s not the kind of thing anybody ever thought was necessary,’' he said.

Indicative of the problem faced by districts was a report released last month by California’s Little Hoover Commission, charging that the state’s $1.2-billion network of children’s services is “in a state of utter confusion and disarray.’'

Many children who “desperately need help are not being served at all,’' the report concluded, blaming the “hodgepodge’’ of agencies that deal with children’s problems.

As with the homelessness issue in general, a haze of uncertainty masks the scope of the problem faced by the education community, said Mike Edwards, lobbying director for the National Education Association, which also opposes the bills in Congress.

“Anecdotal evidence would indicate that there are a substantial number of children out there who are not being served, but we just don’t know for sure,’' he said. “But that certainly does not mean we should wait until we have all the information before we do something.’'

While opposing the existing bills, education lobbyists said they would actively support efforts to increase additional federal support for outreach activities and for the kind of specialized support services that are needed to give homeless children a chance of academic success.

The House bill contains no additional funding. The Senate’s version of the measure, however, would set aside $7.5 million over the next two years for research and demonstration projects.

‘In a Bind’

For Mr. Hawkins, the California Democrat who heads the House Education and Labor Committee, the homeless-education bill has created an unpleasant dilemma.

Acting at the behest of the major education groups, he has blocked the House bill and apparently will seek to delete the Senate provision when members of the two chambers go to conference on the emergency aid bill later this month.

But Mr. Hawkins--a staunch advocate of both education and the homeless--is anything but comfortable with his role in the dispute, according to an aide.

“This really puts us in a bind,’' the aide said. “You end up with a situation where a member looks like he doesn’t want to help homeless children, when actually he does.’'

According to Ms. Foscarinis, homeless advocates are willing to compromise on the legislation, even to the point of abandoning the sanctions entirely. Penalties, she said, “are not something we would refuse to part with.’'

“We would hope that if the education community sincerely wants to do something about this problem then we could work together to develop a bill that meets their objections,’' she added.

Education lobbyists also said they would be willing to support a revised homeless-education proposal. The original version of the Senate bill, which did not contain the objectionable sanctions, might be an acceptable alternative, some said.

Another possible approach to the problem, said Mr. Hunter of the administrators’ association, would be to extend the existing migrant-education program to include the homeless. Migrant specialists, he noted, have developed a number of skills--in evaluating and tracking students, for example--that would also apply to the homeless.

“There is a certain amount of overlap already,’' Mr. Hunter said. “I think you need to work with these [homeless] kids essentially like you work with migrant kids.’'

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