Get the Facts

The first step in determining eligibility is to get the facts to assess the child’s situation. Refer to the table below.

Procedures and Rationale for Gathering Facts
Do this... Because...
Gather initial information through your usual processes. It’s crucial to find out about the family’s living situation.
Talk to the family in a quiet space where staff and other children cannot overhear the conversation. This shows respect for the family’s privacy. These are often very personal discussions for a family.
Avoid using the word “homeless.” Use terms such as “temporary living arrangement.” It reduces the possibility that the stigma associated with the word may lead parents to insist they are not homeless, even though their living situation is represented by the homelessness definition in the McKinney-Vento Act. Also, some families may not consider themselves homeless and yet they may be eligible.
Ask questions to get a better sense of the family’s circumstances and living situation, and to determine eligibility.

It’s a way to obtain more information. Explain the reason for your questions in order to reduce the hesitancy of some families to answer questions due to a desire for privacy, concerns related to domestic violence, or fear of losing their children or housing.

What are basic principles of asking questions?

Before asking any questions, keep these basic principles in mind:

  • Treat families with respect.
    Families experiencing homelessness are highly stressed. They are often involved in multiple systems, and are not always treated respectfully by service providers. Begin by recognizing a family’s strengths and competencies. Acknowledge that they are facing tremendous challenges and are making the best choices they can. Earn their trust, maintain their confidentiality, and treat them with dignity and sensitivity. In your work, focus on what families do well and help them identify these as strengths. Maintain positive and supportive interactions.
  • Watch your language.
    Many families in these difficult situations, despite their eligibility under the law, would not describe themselves as “homeless.” To gather information from families, ask about their living situations. Avoid using the term “homeless” to describe what you hear, due to the associated stigma. Instead, use terminology such as “in a temporary living arrangement.”
  • Have a conversation, not an interrogation.
    Which questions you decide to ask, how you ask the questions, when you ask the questions and to whom you ask the questions have a significant impact on your relationship with the family. It affects the responsiveness of the family as well as your success in getting the responses you need to make a clear determination about whether the family may be in a homeless situation.

To return to the Explore Information tab, select a link below.

Sample Questions

The following are examples of questions to help determine whether a family’s experiences are represented by the homelessness definition in the McKinney-Vento Act.

  • Questions to find out if the living situation is fixed

    Questions to find out if the living situation is fixed (stationary, permanent, and not subject to change)

    • Where are you living now?
    • Is this a permanent arrangement or just temporary? How long have you lived here? How long do you plan to live here? Are you able to stay here? For how long?
    • Are you looking for another place to live?
    • Are you planning to move soon?
    • What brought you to live where you are living now?
    • Where were you living right before this place? Why did you leave (choice or crisis situation)?
    • Suppose you couldn't stay where you are now. Where would you go?
    • Are you staying with friends/relatives just for a little while? How long have you lived here? How long do you plan to live here?
    • Did you and your friends/relatives decide to move in together and share a home and expenses for the long term or is this a temporary situation for you?
    • What would happen if your friends/relatives asked you to leave?
    • Are you all sharing the home equally, or are you more like guests in the home?
    • If you moved out to do repairs on your home, are you planning to move back when the repairs are completed?
    • Do you have affordable housing?
  • Questions to find out if the living situation is regular

    Questions to find out if the living situation is regular (used on a regular and nightly basis)

    • Do you stay in the same place every night?
    • Do you have a key to the place where you are living?
    • Do you move around a lot?
    • How long have you been at that place? How long do you plan to stay?
    • How long did you live in your last place?
    • Do you have to pay anything to stay where you are now?
    • What do you like about where you are living? What don’t you like about it?
  • Questions to find out if the living situation is adequate

    Questions to find out if the living situation is adequate (sufficient for meeting both the physical and psychological needs typically met in home environments)

    • How many people are living in the home? How many bedrooms/bathrooms does it have?
    • Are you and your children sharing a room? How many people are staying in one room?
    • Are you and your children sleeping in a bedroom, or a public area, like a dining room?
    • Does the home have heat/electricity/running water?
    • What condition is the home in? Does it keep out rain and wind? Is it safe? Is it warm and dry? Do the windows have glass panes?
    • Are you comfortable where you are living now?
    • Can you come and go as you please?

What are basic principles of asking questions?

Before asking any questions, keep these basic principles in mind:

  • Treat families with respect.
    Families experiencing homelessness are highly stressed. They are often involved in multiple systems, and are not always treated respectfully by service providers. Begin by recognizing a family’s strengths and competencies. Acknowledge that they are facing tremendous challenges and are making the best choices they can. Earn their trust, maintain their confidentiality, and treat them with dignity and sensitivity. In your work, focus on what families do well and help them identify these as strengths. Maintain positive and supportive interactions.
  • Watch your language.
    Many families in these difficult situations, despite their eligibility under the law, would not describe themselves as “homeless.” To gather information from families, ask about their living situations. Avoid using the term “homeless” to describe what you hear, due to the associated stigma. Instead, use terminology such as “in a temporary living arrangement.”
  • Have a conversation, not an interrogation.
    Which questions you decide to ask, how you ask the questions, when you ask the questions and to whom you ask the questions have a significant impact on your relationship with the family. It affects the responsiveness of the family as well as your success in getting the responses you need to make a clear determination about whether the family may be in a homeless situation.

To return to the Explore Information tab, select a link below.

Analyze the Facts

A family whose experiences are represented by the homelessness definition in the McKinney-Vento Act is eligible for Head Start services. A family is considered homeless under the McKinney-Vento Act if their experiences are represented in the specific examples of homelessness in the definition and the family lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. This requires a case-by-case analysis. Once you have collected the information, use the table below to help you determine whether a family is eligible for Head Start services.

Decision Table for Determining a Homeless Situation
Step Action
1 Does the family’s living arrangement fit into one of the specific examples from part (B) of the McKinney-Vento definition of homelessness?

If YES, go to step 2
If NO, go to step 4
2 Does the family lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence?

If YES, go to step 3 and STOP
If NO, go to step 4
3 The family is considered homeless and is eligible for Head Start services.
4 The family is NOT considered homeless. Consider other eligibility criteria.

Select from the list below to help you analyze whether a family’s experience is represented in the McKinney-Vento definition of homelessness. All examples below include migratory children.

  • Specific examples from part (B) of the McKinney-Vento definition of homelessness
    • Sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason

      Sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason

      “Sharing the housing of other persons…” implies that the child is staying in another person’s home. Analyze the following:

      • Does the family have any legal right to be in that home?
      • Can the family be asked to leave at any time with no legal recourse?
      • Is the living situation intended to be temporary or long term?
      • Did the family move into the home as an urgent measure to avoid being on the street or in another precarious situation?

      "...Due to loss of housing..." implies that the child has no personal housing available. Determine whether the child or family lost their previous housing due to:

      • An eviction or an inability to pay the rent or other bills
      • Destruction of or damage to the previous home
      • Abuse or neglect
      • Unhealthy conditions such as an inadequate physical environment, infestations, drug or alcohol abuse in the home, or domestic violence
      • The absence of a parent or guardian due to abandonment, the parent’s or guardian’s incarceration, or another reason

      "...Economic hardship..." includes cases where limited financial resources have forced families to leave personal residences and share housing due to an inability to pay rent and other bills. The way that the shared housing came about and the intention of the residents are significant. Analyze the following:

      • Did an economic hardship such as an accident or illness, loss of employment, loss of public benefits, or condition of poverty force the family to share housing temporarily? If yes, the children are eligible for McKinney-Vento services.
      • Is the family in a long-term, cooperative living arrangement with relatives or friends that is fixed, regular, and adequate even if the parties are living together to save money? If yes, this is not considered a homeless situation.
    • Living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to the lack of alternative accommodations

      Living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to the lack of alternative accommodations

      "...due to the lack of alternative accommodations" helps determine whether these living situations should be considered homeless situations. Analyze the following:

      • Is there an alternative accommodation to living in a motel, hotel, or camping ground, all of which are rarely fixed or regular? If not, then it is probably a homeless situation. If there are alternatives, then it is not a homeless situation; an example is a wealthy family living in a luxury hotel on a long-term basis when adequate alternatives are available.
      • Is a child living in a trailer park eligible for McKinney-Vento services even though trailer parks are often fixed, regular, and adequate residences? To determine if the child is eligible, ask questions about:
        • The condition and size of the trailer
        • The number of people living there
        • The intended length of stay
        • Whether the family has an adequate alternative
    • Living in emergency or transitional shelters

      Living in emergency or transitional shelters

      Review your collected facts to determine if a family is living in an emergency or transitional shelter. See the examples below:

      • Youth shelters
      • Domestic violence shelters
      • Family shelters
      • Transitional living programs
      • Supportive housing programs
    • Abandoned in hospitals or awaiting foster care placement

      Abandoned in hospitals or awaiting foster care placement

      A child abandoned in a hospital would become a ward of the state and most likely go into the foster care system. Foster children are automatically eligible for Head Start/Early Head Start whether they are awaiting placement, in a temporary placement, or have been placed.

    • Living in 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 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

      Review your collected facts to determine if a family is living in a place that meets criteria, including these examples:

      • Health clinic
      • Office
      • Public restroom
      • Unfinished basement or attic
    • Living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings

      Living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings

      Substandard means “deviating from or falling short of a standard or norm” or “of a quality lower than that prescribed by law.” Review your collected facts and determine if the housing is substandard by comparing it with community norms and the law, including a consideration of such factors as:

      • Health and safety concerns
      • Number of occupants per square foot
      • Age of occupants
      • State and local building codes
  • Fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence

    Fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence

    A living situation is considered fixed if it is:

    • Stationary, permanent, and not subject to change
    • A place where a family has a permanent home and from which it has no present intention of moving

    A living situation is considered regular if it is:

    • Consistent and familiar
    • Used on a regular (i.e., nightly) basis

    A living situation is considered adequate if it is:

    • Lawfully and reasonably sufficient for what is required
    • Sufficient for meeting both the physical and psychological needs typically met in home environments

    NOTE: Once a family is considered homeless, they are eligible for Head Start services through the end of that school year, even if they secure permanent housing during the year.

  • If you are still not sure

    If you are still not sure

    If you are still not sure if a child is eligible for McKinney-Vento services, consider using the following resources:

    • Contact your local homeless education liaison (if you are a school staff person).
    • Contact your State Coordinator for Homeless Education.
    • Post a question to the National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE) Homeless Education Listserv to solicit input from other homeless education practitioners. (Contact NCHE at http://center.serve.org/nche).
    • Call the NCHE Helpline at 800-308-2145

To return to the Explore Information tab, select a link below.

Khari Garvin, Collaboration Director
North Carolina Head Start Collaboration Office

Khari Garvin is the director of the North Carolina Head Start State Collaboration Office. Select the links below to hear or read what Khari has to say about determining eligibility for Head Start based on homelessness.

Children Experiencing Homelessness are Eligible Watch the video [00:00:24] | Read the transcript

As programs are determining eligibility, I think in some ways some Head Start programs are still finding their way with this. Again, as I’ve just mentioned, it is a little bit of a paradigm shift because we often are concerned about collecting all the documents to prove that someone is eligible, but the McKinney-Vento Act requires that we serve families that identify themselves as being homeless immediately, and then in a reasonable timeframe, secure the eligibility documents.

 

How Programs are Determining Eligibility Watch the video [00:00:28] | Read the transcript

Some of the things that programs are doing to determine eligibility of families who are experiencing homelessness are: they’re retooling their enrollment applications; they are adding questions on there that are general enough to not cause – to be stigmatizing in any way, but to be able to secure the proper information to establish that. So they’re adding some additional questions. Also, they’re training staff to be able to ask follow-up questions, again to help that staff to understand and make proper determinations about whether families are homeless or not. And so again, to do it in a way that’s sensitive, but also - but that can collect good solid information.

Asking Questions to Determine Eligibility Watch the video [00:00:43] | Read the transcript

Good enrollment practices for homeless families, first of all, would again include meeting those families where they are, and not expecting that just because you put a banner outside your center that they’re all going to flock there. But it also includes being able to be sensitive to the special needs of this population, asking questions in a way that don’t in any way polarize, or stigmatize, or offend, frankly, the population, as well.

Understanding McKinney-Vento Watch the video [00:00:25] | Read the transcript

There are three primary things that Head Start programs really need to understand with regard to the McKinney-Vento Law. First of all, I think grantees really need to understand the very broad definition of homelessness, because what probably comes to mind is folks who are probably living on a park bench or in a shelter, but it’s much broader than that.

Secondly, I think it’s important for grantees to understand the requirements that are associated with enrolling homeless families. That is, to serve homeless families immediately and worry about collecting paperwork later, and that is a little bit of a paradigm shift for us in Head Start.

And I think the third thing is for programs to understand that fundamentally, this new requirement and this new priority is not new for us in the sense that we have other categorical eligibility that’s been on the books for years, children who receive public assistance or foster children, so we can sort of integrate this into what we’ve already been doing in the past.

Where Families Experiencing Homelessness Live Watch the video [00:00:59] | Read the transcript

What we now know about homeless families and where they typically live, particularly based on the broad definition, we understand that homeless families live in, they actually, some do live in homes, they're doubled-up. They live with families or relatives in homes by virtue of losing their previous place of residence, so that's one place. Again, unfortunately, park benches and that sort of thing. Some live in their cars, some live in homeless shelters, some live in motels. Some live in trailer parks. And so, it's a wide variety of places.

Now, and in terms of "Is there a stark contrast?", there certainly can be a stark contrast of what we used to believe about where homeless people lived. Some of that has to do, again, with this notion that someone is not living in any sort of shelter at all, but the definition actually is "families that lack a fixed, adequate, and regular nighttime residence," not just someone who doesn't live under a roof anywhere.

So I think it's very important, too, for us to remember that. And also, too, that the last thing that I think is a stark contrast is that, when we talk about homelessness, we're talking about, again, families that lack a fixed, adequate, and regular nighttime residence – doesn't say anything about whether they work or not. There are lots of homeless people who have jobs and that sort of thing, but they just lack a fixed, adequate, and regular nighttime residence.

To return to the Explore Information tab, select a link below.

Last Updated: January 6, 2017