Breaking the Cycle of Homelessness for America’s Students and Families

In a recent video, the New York City Rescue Mission proved just how invisible America’s homeless are. Have the Homeless Become Invisible? illustrates the challenge. In this social experiment several people came face to face with their relatives and loved ones dressed as homeless persons on the streets of Soho. Not one individual recognized his or her loved ones.

Imagine walking past your brother or sister, homeless and on the streets, and not knowing them. Most Americans don’t want to believe it but homelessness in our country is tragically pervasive. And according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 41% of the homeless population is comprised of families with children. is comprised of families with children. The National Center on Family Homelessness estimates that more than 2.5 million children experience homelessness each year.

But, there’s good news: communities aren’t standing idly by as homeless students and their families struggle. Recent briefs issued by the National Center for Homeless Education demonstrate that collaborations between housing authorities and school districts can help to break the cycle of homeless for families and children.

Schools are probably a family’s most trusted institution and when local housing agencies and foundations enter into partnership with them, they can reach families earlier in their housing crisis. These collaborations also provide school leaders opportunities to deal more effectively with the academic and social needs of the students

A pilot program at McCarver Elementary School in Tacoma, Washington is an example of a partnership between the school, the local housing authority, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and several other local agencies. This project brought fifty families to the school, attending conferences, volunteering, and working with caseworkers. In return, these families received vouchers to help cover the cost of housing.

During the course of the program, parents have made considerable progress toward financial stability, family incomes have almost doubled, and students have made gains in educational performance. Between the first and second years, the percent of students in the program reading at grade level nearly doubled and remained on par with all McCarver students in year three.

Two other demonstration projects have entered into similar collaborations. Working closely with Boulder Valley School District and the St. Vrain Valley School District, the Boulder County Housing Authority used funds received from a HOME grant to identify families at risk of becoming homeless to set financial and educational goals. Families in the program signed an agreement to allow case managers to work with them to support their children’s academic success. Case managers participate in various school meetings, modeling appropriate behavior for the parents and encouraging their involvement in their children’s schools. This unique support system has resulted in increased financial self-sufficiency and additional academic support, including free and low cost computers and Internet access.

In December 2014, Hamilton Family Center entered into a partnership with the San Francisco Unified School District to address family homelessness in the school system. When a teacher, counselor, social worker, or nurse learns that a family is in crisis, they call the Family Center hotline. Within three business days, staff arrive at the school and work with the family to assist with finding housing.

With funding from Google and other donors, the Hamilton Family Center is able to serve approximately 10 families a month. Through this new partnership, teams work together on issues of educational performance, truancy, and emotional development with homeless or at-risk students.

According to Secretary Duncan, “Schools, with additional support from local community organizations and governments and private foundations, are a critical link to help stabilize the family by reducing mobility, supporting enrollment and attendance, providing homework support, and improving student achievement.”

All families, especially those living in unstable or inadequate housing and high poverty, deserve efficient and integrated resources to help them achieve economic stability and educational success.

Programs like the ones in Tacoma, Boulder, and San Francisco demonstrate that homeless families don’t need to remain invisible. The outlook for these families with children can improve dramatically when the barriers that keep them hidden are removed.

Elizabeth Williamson is an Education Program Specialist in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Communications and Outreach in Philadelphia, PA.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for understanding that we have to break the cycle of homelessness for families with children–before some of these children become our next generation of homeless adults. Please don’t be shy about the need to also reduce teen and other unintended pregnancies that too often result in school dropouts, and an inter-generational cycle of poverty.

  2. Thank you for getting this news out. We need to be more knowledgeable about the needs of this target population and how to intervene to ensure that the families and kiddos have equal access to the most effective teachers and support strategies that these outstanding programs and models provide. Even if we don’t have Gates and other foundations, we have an obligation to unite with stakeholders to target needs and offer solutions, via collaboration, shared resources and constant attention to reach and serve those who need us most. We have work to do!

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