For many teens and children, homelessness seems a safer environment than living under a roof filled with emotional stress or abuse. The grim reality is that many of our marginalized youth feel they have no choice but to abandon their home and try to make it on their own. Barbara Duffield, director of policy and programs at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, told U.S. News & World Report that young people may even be homeless with their family and take on the role of caretaker for younger siblings.1

The implications of homelessness are somber and consequential. These young people are at an increased risk for having a learning disability, being chronically absent, scoring low on standardized tests and leaving school without graduating. Even more gravely, increasing numbers of unaccompanied homeless teens or children (young people living on their own) indicate that more of our nation's young people are exposed to sexual trafficking, abuse, hunger and a denial of basic needs in record numbers, according to Bruce Lesley, president of the First Focus Campaign for Children.2

Homelessness on the Rise

In the 2012-13 school year, U.S school districts had 1,258,182 homeless students (a nationwide 8 percent increase from the previous year). Thirty-four states (including the District of Columbia) reported annual increases in the number of homeless students, according to the U.S. Department of Education.2,3

As these young people live in survival mode, they're also expected to attend school, concentrate, be engaged and behave well. It's a "desperate situation," says Lesley.2 Homelessness is a growing educational epidemic as evidenced in the following states:

  • 10,851 homeless students were enrolled in Arkansas's preschools and K-12 schools during 2012-13-an annual increase of 14 percent; 9,365 of Arkansas homeless children are eligible for educational assistance1
  • In Arizona, the number of homeless students increased from 19,628 to 31,178 (a jump of 63 percent) between 2006 and 20124
  • Nevada schools enrolled 12,054 homeless students during the 2012-13 school year, a 16 percent increase; 10,705 of Nevada homeless children are eligible for educational assistance5
  • 270,000 students in California experienced homelessness in 2012-13, which is a 22.3 percent increase from the previous two years; California's growing rate of homeless public school students is twice the national average6
  • In Florida, 69,956 homeless students attended school in 2012-13, and the number of K-12 students without permanent homes increased by 10 percent7

Youth homelessness is an alarming nationwide trend. In response, public schools can take on the dual roles of learning institution and place of refuge where homeless kids can receive basic services. Helping this demographic relies heavily on funding, however, and school services can't always meet the extensive needs of these individuals. Community and nonprofit organizations can help fill this void in the following ways.

Nourish Emotional Well-Being

Young people who are physically homeless typically suffer from "emotional homelessness" as well. Lacking a loving and caring home, it is difficult for them to cultivate healthy relationships and find happiness. Educators can help provide these young people with a nurturing home-like environment where safety and security is a given. Support, care, a sense of belonging and connection turn a physical structure into a home.

"The cure for emotional homelessness is positive human companionship," according to the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.8 A professional mentor values a student and encourages the individual to make positive decisions. Frequent visits and text messages to check in on the student show that someone cares. Building caring relationships with parents created around empathy and trust can also strengthen the parents' ability to be self-sufficient, engaged, warm and supportive caregivers to their children.9

Host an Alternative School

Young people exposed to homelessness and its major contributing factors like financial instability, home violence and behavioral problems may not be good candidates for the traditional school system. Educators should consider providing an alternative school environment. Set up technology-equipped work stations and develop tailored academic programs to help students catch up on lessons and material they've fallen behind on. Partnering with a high school completion program can provide a structured yet flexible pedagogical model for nontraditional learners who need an alternative way to learn and earn a diploma.

Cultivate a Sense of Community

A trusting sense of community empowered by mentorship can not only help steer students back on course in education and life. In a supportive community led by positive role models, young people touched by homelessness can learn perseverance as they receive social services (e.g. stipend, food, clothing and transportation). Peer-to-peer mentorship can also create accountability partners among like-minded individuals from similar backgrounds. Together, these students can share experiences and work toward building new futures as a team who understands one another.

The University of Arizona's The Daily Wildcat recently drew awareness to the surge of homelessness in Arizona. The student newspaper spotlighted how dropout-prevention programs can profoundly change a young person's life. Hough, a young person who left her family due to tension at home over her bisexuality, found an invaluable sense of community with Eon, an LGBTQ and allied youth support group in Southern Arizona. If an entire community can embrace the problem of youth homelessness, along with nonprofit organizations, we can turn this growing trend around.3

Offer Job Training & Pre-Apprenticeships

As part of your educational re-engagement or high school completion strategy, emphasize the value of job training and career planning. Focusing on future employment and job readiness provides opportunity youth with the bigger picture: their future. By broadening programs to be career-oriented, organizations advocate completing education to build a long-term future secured with a stable job. Joining educational and occupational pursuits can maximize this sensitive time for an at-risk and underprivileged young person.

To enhance the learning experience for these young people, supplement classrooms with hands-on learning opportunities such as pre-apprenticeships and internships. Provide career-focused and job-readiness training including job search tactics, resume building and interviewing skills. Give them the guidance and pathways to develop employment skills, access opportunities for post-secondary education and create goals for long-term success.

Develop Leaders

Foster youth leadership by offering these young people the opportunity to create an elected policy committee and share governance. Encourage students to actively participate in community affairs and teach the value of leadership. As young people develop the skills to be a positive community members and proactive, productive members of society, they can also direct their new skill set and attitude toward their education and future career path. Community involvement, along with an alternative educational program and occupational training, can transform young people. Students will learn how to communicate better and gain the confidence to set goals such as graduating high school, moving into post-secondary education and working at a managerial level.

How do you see the role of education evolving to better address our growing homeless student population? Comment below.

Resources: Photo; (1) Homeless High Schoolers Face Barriers to Education (2) Arkansas schools enroll record number of homeless youth (3) Education for Homeless Children and Youth (4) Homelessness on the Rise in Arizona (5) Record Number of Homeless Students Reported in Nevada Schools (6) California Leads the Nation in Homeless School Children (7) Florida's homeless students break records, grow faster than the U.S. (8) I Believe That We Need to Think About Emotional Homeless (9) Supporting Homeless Young Children and Their Parents