Legal 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 is the Meaning of Fixed, Regular, and Adequate Nighttime Residence?

Fixed, Regular, and Adequate Nighttime Residence

Fixed nighttime residence: Stationary, permanent, and not subject to change.

Regular nighttime residence: Used on a predictable, routine, or consistent basis.

Adequate nighttime residence: Sufficient for meeting both the physical and psychological needs typically met in home environments.

Why is the Definition so Broad?

Why is the definition so broad?

Below are some reasons why the definition of homelessness is intentionally broad:

  • Shelters are often full; shelters turn families away, or put families on waiting lists.
  • Shelters do not exist in many suburban and rural areas.
  • definition conditions of shelters often exclude families with boys over the age of 12.
  • Shelters often have 30-, 60-, or 90- day time limits.
  • Motels may not be available, or may be too expensive.
  • Families may turn to friends or family after initial eviction, living in over-crowded, temporary, and sometimes unsafe environments.
  • Families may be unaware of alternatives, fleeing in crisis.
  • Families fear child welfare involvement if they are on the street or otherwise unsheltered.

Housing Challenges for Migrant and Seasonal Farm Worker Families

Housing Challenges for Migrant and Seasonal Farm Worker Families

Housing challenges for migrant and seasonal farm worker families include:

  • Lack of sufficient farm worker housing traditionally provided through grower-owned labor camps results in the need to consider private housing rentals.
  • Labor camps are often neglected and/or in disrepair.
  • Insufficient availability of private rental housing, particularly in small rural communities.
  • Rental units may be unavailable to migrant farm workers because they cannot provide deposits, qualify for credit checks, and/or make long-term rental commitments.
  • Approximately 50% of farm workers rent housing from a private party but private housing is not subject to federal regulation and is often substandard and/or expensive.

The above information is from the National Center for Farmworker Health.

Additional Information About the Definition

Additional Information About the Definition.

The definition of homeless children in Public Law 110–134 Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act of 2007 (Sec. 637. Definitions [42 U.S.C. 9832](11)) matches the definition of homelessness above:

The term “homeless children” has the meaning given the term “homeless children and youths” in section 725(2) of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (42 U.S.C. 11434a(2)).

This same definition can also be found in the following acts:

  • Child Nutrition Act
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
  • Violence Against Women Act

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McKinney-Vento Act & Head Start

How does the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act relate to Head Start?

The Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act of 2007 (reauthorizing the Head Start program) refers to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act when defining homelessness and when requiring Head Start to coordinate with the local implementers of the McKinney-Vento Act. In regard to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, Head Start, Early Head Start, and Migrant and Seasonal Head Start programs must do the following:

  1. Identify and prioritize homeless children for enrollment using the definition of homelessness as specified in the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which governs public schools.
  2. Attempt to address the barriers that decrease children’s ability to enroll and participate in Head Start, Early Head Start, and Migrant and Seasonal Head Start programs by:
    • Prioritizing homeless children for enrollment, and
    • Obtaining related documents within a reasonable time frame.
  3. Coordinate with local implementers of the McKinney-Vento Act.

According to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, what does the term “homeless children and youths” mean?

The term “homeless children and youths” means individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. It includes a broad array of inadequate living situations. This definition can help educators, families, and youth understand who is entitled to the Act’s protections.

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Last Reviewed: July 2014

Last Updated: July 9, 2014