Family Support & Well-being

Caring Conversations About McKinney-Vento Eligibility

Access to high-quality services, such as those provided by Head Start programs, reduces the immediate and overall impact of homelessness on children and families. This is why prioritizing and enrolling families experiencing homelessness is so important.

The Head Start Program Performance Standards require programs to use the McKinney-Vento Act’s definition of homeless, hereinafter referred to as the “McKinney-Vento Act’s definition,” to determine eligibility for enrollment in Head Start programs. All families who meet the McKinney-Vento Act’s definition are “categorically eligible.” This means that staff do not have to discuss or obtain proof of income and can focus on other requirements for verifying eligibility (45 CFR §1302.12(i)(3)).

Living situations among families differ significantly. It’s not always easy to know if any single family’s experience fits within the McKinney-Vento Act’s definition. Staff may be reluctant to ask questions they imagine families will find intrusive and may feel uncertain about the full meaning of the McKinney-Vento Act’s definition. There are also many reasons a family may not self-identify as homeless. For example, many families may not identify their living circumstances as “homeless,” and some families may worry that their housing instability will be misperceived as a judgment of their ability to care for their family. Further, families may not realize their living circumstances could make them eligible for Head Start services.

To address these challenges, staff can use a “caring conversation” approach. Since staff can better identify family eligibility options if they have information from families about their housing circumstances, this resource offers new ways to have these types of conversations with families.

Caring Conversations with Families

Caring conversations promote trusting relationships in situations where sensitive information must be gathered. Caring conversations about housing should honor the specific values, interests, and cultural characteristics of the families the program serves. Families who experience racism, poverty, and bias are overrepresented among those facing homelessness, and these experiences can expose children and families to traumatic experiences that have long-term consequences. Cross-cultural sensitivity and learning are always part of the caring conversation approach. This helps to build trust, especially when staff are openly willing to acknowledge biases that may be impacting families’ living situations, such as the impact of institutional racism on families’ housing circumstances.

Staff can use a caring conversations approach to learn whether families are McKinney-Vento eligible without using the word “homeless.” In this context, the goal of caring conversations is to:

  • Help families with enrollment
  • Help families deal with housing and other related challenges
  • Honor and promote families’ strengths and capacity

You can think about these conversations in three phases: an invitation, intentional listening, and follow-through.

Circular graphic showing the three phases: an invitation, intentional listening, and follow-through.

Learn about each phase of the caring conversations process. Review the examples of what staff might say to families to gather the information they need to identify eligibility and expedite enrollment in Head Start programs.

Phase one: an invitation

An Invitation

The first phase of a caring conversation approach begins with a simple invitation for the family to share their story.

What Staff Might SayAbout This Approach
“Tell me about you and your family.”This statement allows the family to guide the conversation and share information they feel is relevant.
“We talk with all families about age and income when thinking about eligibility. We also talk with all families about current living circumstances and any resources families receive or would like to learn more about. Sometimes, families’ living circumstances make them eligible for our program. Would you be comfortable sharing a little bit about your living circumstances?”This statement provides a universal, caring approach that lets families know this is the approach you take with all families. If their living situation is of concern, important information could be forthcoming.
Phase two: intentional listening

Intentional Listening

The caring conversation approach continues with intentional listening. Here, staff listen for statements related to housing that link the families’ descriptions of their living circumstances with those included in the McKinney-Vento Act definition.

McKinney-Vento Act’s Definition: Housing Circumstances

The McKinney-Vento Act’s definition consists of the following housing circumstances that can make a family categorically eligible for Head Start services:

  • Sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason
  • Living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to the lack of alternative, adequate accommodations
  • Living in emergency or transitional shelters
  • Having a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings
  • Living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings
  • Lacking a nighttime residence that is fixed, regular, and adequate

Intentional listening requires open-minded curiosity and a commitment to relationship building.
Effective communication strategies for building trust and rapport include offering positive body language and summarizing and sharing back what you hear from families. While listening to families share information about their housing circumstances, staff may need further clarification to determine categorical eligibility. In these situations, staff can use clarifying questions and document the conversation as part of the verification process.

Clarifying Questions

Using clarifying questions is an intentional strategy for gathering more information when housing challenges are revealed during caring conversations. Staff, however, should use these questions only in direct response to something the family shares when invited to tell their story. The questions are intended to assist staff in making mental connections to the McKinney-Vento Act’s definition. They are not designed as a checklist or a fact-finding tool for staff to use during discussions with families.

The following examples of clarifying questions are organized around parts of the McKinney-Vento definition that can be more confusing. They reflect a strengths-based approach designed to help staff engage families and build relationships with them from the beginning.

Clarifying Questions About Fixed, Regular, and Adequate Housing

Staff can use these examples of questions to understand the part of the McKinney-Vento definition that relates to whether a living situation is “fixed, regular, and adequate.”

What Staff Might SayAbout This Approach

“I heard you mention that you are unhappy about your living situation. May I ask you …”

  • “Are you living in the same place every night?”
  • “Is there something in your housing situation that needs to change?”
  • “Do you have enough space and privacy for you and your children to sleep comfortably every night?”

During their interaction with a family, staff can look for every opportunity to demonstrate respect for the family’s preferences.

Staff can recognize a family’s commitment to providing for their children and the strong bonds and strengths they share as a family. The responses to these questions can help staff in determining if the family’s current living situation is fixed, regular, and adequate.

Clarifying Questions About Sharing Housing with Others

Staff can use these examples of questions to understand the part of the McKinney-Vento definition that relates to whether sharing housing is the family’s choice or due to a sudden event or economic hardship.

What Staff Might SayAbout This Approach

“I think you may have said you are sharing housing right now. May I ask you a few questions?”

  • “Are you staying with family or friends for a long time, or is it temporary?”
  • “Are you staying with family and friends due to challenges related to loss of employment, an accident, loss of benefits, or some other unexpected hardship?”
  • “Could you be asked to leave suddenly or unexpectedly?”
During their interactions with a family, staff can honor the family’s customs by being genuinely interested in learning why the family shares living spaces. Many families choose to live together for cultural reasons or economic benefits. These reasons are very different from economic hardship.

Clarifying Questions About Temporary vs. Permanent Living Circumstances

Staff can use these examples of questions to understand the part of the McKinney-Vento definition that relates to whether a family’s situation, whether shared or not, is considered “regular.”

What Staff Might SayAbout This Approach

“May I revisit what you said about where you are living? May I ask you to clarify a few points? It might help me understand if you are eligible for enrollment in our Head Start program due to your living circumstances.”

  • “You mentioned you are in a hotel/motel. Is this short-term while you find another place?”
  • “You said you are in a trailer park. Is this your permanent home? If not, can you tell me a bit more? Is it a temporary situation?”
  • “Tell me about the shelter you are staying in. Is this temporary?”
During their interactions with a family, staff can show understanding and compassion for the circumstances the family is facing.
Phase three: follow-through


The final phase of caring conversations is follow-through. During this phase, staff can use these and other clarifying questions to identify families who are McKinney-Vento eligible and to inform the family of their categorical eligibility for enrollment.

Follow-through includes responding to concerns the family might have expressed in the conversation. It also includes providing immediate information and support from resources in the program and community. During the follow-through phase, staff need to support families in readily accessing community resources that could aid them in their search for housing. Other examples of follow-through include:

  • Maintaining open communication with colleagues to create more supportive experiences for families
  • Ensuring that enrollment processes with community partners are well-coordinated
  • Communicating effectively with community partners, such as educational homeless liaisons and local housing coordinators

Program Considerations

Since the living circumstances of some families can become unstable at any point during the enrollment year, staff can also use caring conversations and clarifying questions during their ongoing goal setting, check-ins about the family partnership agreements, and any related interactions with families. To effectively implement this approach to determining McKinney-Vento eligibility, program leadership and management can embed caring conversations in policies and procedures for determining eligibility and staff training. Program leadership and management can also seek families’ input when making changes to the program’s existing approaches.