The classroom teacher noted changes in eight-year-old Jenny's attendance and behavior. Jenny seemed less motivated to perform in school, her homework was no longer completed, and she was often unkempt and prone to falling asleep in class. The teacher had heard a rumour about Jenny's living situation but did not want to pry into her private life.
Jenny is now homeless, and according to 2009 data from the National Center on Family Homelessness, that is the status of 1 out of every 50 children in the U. S. This means that there are more than 1.5 million homeless children in any given year. In fact, the fastest-growing group experiencing homelessness is children, and in light of the present state of the economy, the number of homeless youth is expected to increase.
A key to preventing a variety of school problems when students become homeless is to know these children well. Teachers must be alert to the signs that a child is homeless, since these youths face a variety of challenges and experiences that put them at risk for a range of physical, mental, and academic problems. It is imperative to become more aware of issues that put these children at greater risk as well as address prevention and intervention efforts in order to encourage their resiliency.
Homeless youth are one of the most marginalized and victimized populations in schools. They experience more daily stressors and are more vulnerable to victimization than housed youth. Youth who are homeless have sustained higher rates of physical and sexual abuse prior to becoming homeless than the general population, and they are at continued risk for being physically assaulted and exposed to sexualexploitation. Similarly, rates of substance use, family violence, health issues and suicide are higher in this population.
Suicide, in fact, is the leading cause of death among homeless youth. The lifetime prevalence of suicidal attempts among homeless youth is between 20 and 40 percent, compared to 8 percent among housed youth.
Addressing Our Own Biases
In order to address the issues around homeless children and youth, we must first become aware of our own biases and perceptions of homelessness. Society tends to view homelessness as a personal weakness without considering the societal structures that maintain this problem. Some teachers perceive children who are homeless as more difficult, which impacts their ability and desire to engage with these youth. This often exacerbates the isolation children feel. Therefore, the teacher's perception regarding the student's potential for success and resiliency may be the first step toward addressing the issue the child has.
What Can School Personnel Do?
- Become aware of their own personal biases and perceptions about homelessness.
- Be familiar with the risk factors associated with homelessness: physical and sexual abuse, school expulsion and lack of academic achievement, poor social networks, economic disadvantage, mental illness, drug abuse or an inability to access community resources.
- Be familiar with the signs of homelessness: peer problems, poor hygiene, frequent absences, engaging in substance use, improper/inappropriate clothing, or incomplete homework.
- Provide support to homeless children and develop school teams comprised of teachers, administrators and support personnel.
- Foster a sense of connection with school or community.
- Conference with parents to build upon these children's current strengths and increase protective factors.
- Identify a school or school system liaison for homeless students, and coordinate services and access to community resources such as shelters, medical and mental health care, mentoring, tutoring, and after-school programs.
One of the most important protective factors for homeless children is having one stable, caring adult who believes in their capacity to be resilient, overcome adversity, and beat the odds against them. School personnel who can recognize these circumstances and advocate for services and support can make the difference for students like Jenny.
Scott Poland is the prevention division director for the American Association of Suicidology. Ivy Grace Durant and Robyn Hardie, both doctoral students at Nova Southeastern University, contributed to this article.