According to the recently released Project Aware Issue Brief, Homeless Students and Mental Health Cultural Competency, youth and young adults experiencing homelessness suffer significant barriers to full participation in school. When homeless youth attend school they are unlikely to have eaten or slept sufficiently. They often lack medical and dental care, and are more susceptible to common illnesses like skin diseases and upper respiratory infections. Compared to their peers, they have higher rates of depression, low self-esteem, suicide, substance abuse, and anxiety. They are often alienated and experience difficulty making friends. In the classroom, they may have difficulty listening, asking for help, and following directions, and they often have to repeat grades, especially because they may rarely turn in homework and often suffer from one or more learning disabilities.
Effective Strategies for Schools
- The first priority should be fulfilling basic needs. Many researchers stress it is misguided to try to get a person who lacks survival necessities to join extracurricular activities, do homework, or seek counseling.
- To better identify these students, schools can reach unknown homeless youth through networks of visible/known homeless youth; coordinate with homeless shelters and church groups; post information about support for homeless students in areas where youth congregate; and coordinate with trusted educators, adults, and other school workers with whom homeless minors feel safe.
- Implement a mentor program to model academic achievement as well as help homeless students with basic social skills and, if possible, tutoring. A mentor can help these students feel more connected to his or her school and lower their dropout risk.
- Familiarize faculty and staff with laws related to abuse, neglect, and runaway students. Make it clear to faculty and staff when they are required to report charges to law enforcement or child protective services.
- Create alternative opportunities for homeless youth to earn graduation credit. Offer partial credit for completed coursework. Consider programs that allow flexible school hours, like work-education programs (that allow students to earn money as well as credit) or computer-based training.
- Suspension and expulsion are ineffective in improving outcomes for students experiencing homelessness.
- Schools should not withhold enrollment until students can produce paperwork, such as immunization or school records. Youth seeking enrollment should be allowed to start classes as quickly as possible. It is also important not to force students to live on the streets or in homeless shelters before they are allowed McKinney-Vento Act protections.