Lesson 1: The Definition of Homelessness


The purpose of this lesson on the definition of homelessness is to:

  • Identify who is experiencing homelessness based on the McKinney-Vento definition of homelessness; and
  • Select reasons that support your decision.

Barbara Duffield is a director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. Listen to Barbara talk about why the definition of homelessness is important. She also will appear in each lesson activity to give you further explanation about the correct answer you select.

Meet Barbara: Watch the video [00:00:38] | Read the transcript

Hello. My name is Barbara Duffield. I am a director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth—NAEHCY. I began working on homelessness as a tutor for homeless children in Washington, DC in 1990. I then worked as Director of Education at the National Coalition for the Homeless for 10 years.

At NAEHCY, we work to connect educators, parents, advocates, researchers, and service providers to ensure success for children and youth whose lives have been disrupted by the lack of safe, permanent, and adequate housing.

Barbara relates why the definition of homelessness is important: Watch the video [00:02:12] | Read the transcript

In this lesson—the Definition of Homelessness—you will be invited to explore the definition of homelessness through scenario-based activities.

First, let’s look at the McKinney-Vento Act and its relationship to Head Start and homelessness. The McKinney-Vento Act is a collection of legislation that represents the federal government’s efforts to address homelessness. It contains a housing subtitle, a health subtitle, and an education subtitle.

The education subtitle of the McKinney-Vento Act governs all public schools in the United States. It contains a definition of homelessness that is now matched in the Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act of 2007—The 2007 Head Start Act. The definition of homelessness includes families who lack “fixed, regular, and adequate housing.” Specific situations that are covered include children in emergency and transitional shelters; children and families sharing the housing of others due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or similar reasons; and children and families living in motels or hotels due to lack of adequate alternative accommodations.

It is important to keep in mind key parts of this definition. For example, not all families sharing the housing of others will be considered homeless; families who are voluntarily staying with others in permanent, adequate arrangements will not meet this definition. Determinations of homelessness should be made on a case-by-case, individualized basis.

This definition of homelessness is broad because it reflects the reality of family and youth homelessness today:

  • Shelters are full and turn families away;
  • Shelters may not exist in rural or suburban areas; and
  • Eligibility criteria at some shelters prevent some families from staying there.

This situation has been exacerbated by the current economic situation.

I have shared some basic information about the definition of homelessness. Now you are invited to begin the lesson.

Why This Lesson is Important

The 2007 Head Start Reauthorization establishes that children experiencing homelessness are automatically eligible for Head Start (homeless status, rather than income, makes families eligible for Head Start). The Head Start Act uses the definition of homelessness from the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act to establish whether children are experiencing homelessness.

The McKinney-Vento definition of homelessness is quite broad and it is not always easy to determine whether or not a family is homeless. Families with circumstances similar to those in the stories in this lesson could walk through your door at any time. What will you do? How will you decide if they are experiencing homelessness?

Each story in this lesson includes different circumstances that you will need to consider in making your decision. Consult the information provided to help you and support your decision. Try as many stories as you wish and share them with your colleagues. The thought process you follow will help you when you need to make these decisions in your program.

Read the McKinney-Vento Definition of Homelessness

According to section 725(2) of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (42 U.S.C. 11434a(2)), the term “homeless children and youths”—

(A) means individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence...; and

(B) includes—

(i) children and youths who are sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason; are living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to the lack of alternative accommodations; are living in emergency or transitional shelters; are abandoned in hospitals; or are awaiting foster care placement;

(ii) children and youths who have 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;

(iii) children and youths who are living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings; and

(iv) migratory children who qualify as homeless for the purposes of this subtitle because the children are living in circumstances described in clauses (i) through (iii).

Children and youth are considered homeless if they fit both part A and any one of the subparts of part B of the definition above.

What does "automatically eligible" mean?

Automatically eligible means that homeless status, rather than income, makes a family eligible for Head Start.

Lesson Guidelines

From the Definition lesson on the navigation bar at the top, select a story from the drop-down list. Use the tabs to move around as you wish. You may find it helpful to follow these steps:

  1. Read the story. (Read the Story tab)
  2. Explore the information provided and think about how it relates to the story. (Explore Information tab)
  3. Ask yourself: “Does the information in the story fit into one of the examples in the McKinney-Vento definition?”
  4. Ask yourself: “Does it fit under the broader definition of ‘lacking a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence’?”
  5. Discuss the story with others, such as colleagues or your local homeless education liaison in your community.
  6. Do the activity. (Do the Activity tab)

Last Reviewed: July 2014

Last Updated: January 6, 2017