Common Signs of Homelessness

Refer to the table below for common signs of homelessness. These signs are general characteristics and may vary significantly for individuals.

Common Sign Examples

Lack of Continuity in Education

  • Attendance at many different schools
  • Lack of records needed to enroll
  • Inability to pay fees
  • Gaps in skill development
  • Mistaken diagnosis of abilities
  • Poor organizational skills
  • Poor ability to conceptualize

Poor Health/Nutrition

  • Lack of immunizations and/or immunization records
  • Unmet medical and dental needs
  • Respiratory problems
  • Skin rashes
  • Chronic hunger (may hoard food)
  • Fatigue (may fall asleep in class)

Transportation and Attendance Problems

  • Erratic attendance and tardiness
  • Numerous absences
  • Lack of participation in after-school activities
  • Lack of participation in field trips
  • Inability to contact parents

Poor Hygiene

  • Lack of shower facilities/washers, etc.
  • Wearing same clothes for several days
  • Inconsistent grooming

Lack of Personal Space After School

  • Consistent lack of preparation for school
  • No place to work or keep supplies
  • Unable to complete special projects (no access to supplies)
  • Lack of basic school supplies
  • Loss of books and other supplies on a regular basis
  • Concern for safety of belongings

Social and Behavioral Concerns

  • A marked change in behavior
  • Poor/short attention span
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Extreme shyness
  • Unwillingness to risk forming relationships with peers and teachers
  • Difficulty socializing at recess
  • Difficulty trusting people
  • Aggression
  • "Old" beyond years
  • Protective of parents
  • Clinging behavior
  • Developmental delays
  • Fear of abandonment
  • School phobia (student wants to be with parent)
  • Anxiety late in the school day

Reaction/Statements by Parent, Guardian, or Child

  • Exhibiting anger or embarrassment when asked about current address
  • Mention of staying with grandparents, other relatives, friends, or in a motel, or comments such as:
    • "I don't remember the name of the last school."
    • "We've been moving around a lot."
    • "Our address is new; I can't remember it."
    • "We're staying with relatives until we get settled."
    • "We're going through a bad time."

NOTE: These common signs of homelessness were adapted from flyers developed by the Illinois and Pennsylvania Departments of Education.

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Issues Related to Homelessness

Causes of Homelessness

  • Lack of affordable housing
  • Poverty
  • Health problems
  • Domestic violence
  • Natural and other disasters
  • Abuse/neglect/abandonment (unaccompanied youth such as pregnant and parenting teens)

Issues Facing Homeless Children

  • Mobility - loss of structure, routine, stability
  • Trauma and loss
  • Deep poverty (deprivation, hunger)
  • Higher rates of developmental delays
  • Higher rates of chronic and acute health problems
  • Mental health issues: stress, anxiety, and depression
  • Disrupted or stressed attachments to caregivers
  • Invisibility

Challenges Facing Homeless Parents

  • Transportation challenges—work, school, after-school care
  • Inadequate food and health care
  • Barriers to child care (such as required paperwork)
  • Loss, depression, other mental health consequences of their housing crisis
  • Safety issues and fears related to domestic violence
  • Not knowing where to seek help or find assistance
  • Embarrassment over inability to provide for children
  • Fear of child welfare involvement
  • Housing instability making job search difficult

Head Start's Historical Commitment to Homelessness

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Statistics You Might Want to Know

How many children and families are experiencing homelessness?

  • There are 1.5 million children who are homeless in the United States and 40% of these children are under the age of five. (Feed The Children's Homeless Education and Literacy Program, 2009)
  • Every year, hundreds of thousands of American families become homeless. (The National Center on Family Homelessness, 2009)
  • One in 50 children experience homelessness in America each year. (The National Center on Family Homelessness, 2009)

What causes homelessness?

  • On average, cities reported a 12 percent increase in homelessness from 2007 to 2008, with 16 cities citing an increase in the number of homeless families. The primary cause of homelessness for families is lack of affordable housing, poverty, and unemployment. (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 12/12/08 Press Release)
  • Family homelessness is caused by the combined effects of lack of affordable housing, extreme poverty, decreasing government supports, changing demographics of the family, the challenges of raising children alone, domestic violence, and fractured social supports. (The National Center on Family Homelessness, 2009).

Where are families in homeless situations living?

  • States reported that in 2003–04, 50.33 percent of their homeless children and youth lived doubled up with relatives and friends, compared with 35 percent estimated in the 2000 report to Congress. The large percentage of homeless children and youth living doubled up compared with the percentage of those living in shelters (25.33 percent) may be attributable in part to the overall increase in the number of homeless families and in part to the lack of availability of shelters. (Report to the President and Congress on the Implementation of the Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, Department of Education, 2006)
  • Over 40 percent of children living in homeless shelters are under the age of five. (Report to the President and Congress on the Implementation of the Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, Department of Education, 2006)

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Homelessness Quiz

For each question, decide your answer, then select below to reveal the correct response.

  1. Most homeless families with children live in shelters.

    True or False?  Answer

    False - Most homeless families with children do not live in shelters. In fact, 68 percent of homeless children identified by schools were in motels or living temporarily with others. To learn more about this, try Lesson 1: Definition of Homelessness.

  2. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act is a law that addresses the needs of homeless children and youth only in grades K-12.

    True or False?  Answer

    False - The McKinney-Vento Act addresses the needs of homeless children and youth in grades K-12 but it also contains provisions on pre-school-aged children. To learn more about the McKinney-Vento Act, try Lesson 1: Definition of Homelessness.

  3. Local liaisons for homeless education (homeless liaisons) work in school districts to ensure that children experiencing homelessness continue to attend school. They also link these children and their families with programs and services that they may need.

    True or False?  Answer

    TRUE - Local liaisons are required to make referrals to health, housing, and other community resources. To learn more about local liaisons, try Lesson 6: Community Collaborations.

  4. There are no time limits for which a child may be considered homeless.

    True or False?  Answer

    TRUE - A child is considered homeless for any length of time as long as his or her circumstances are included under the definition of homelessness in the McKinney-Vento Act. To learn more, try Lesson 1: Definition of Homelessness.

  5. A family that lives with others because they have lost their housing would never be considered homeless according to the definition in the McKinney-Vento Act.

    True or False?  Answer

    False - Families who are staying temporarily with others due to loss of housing are considered homeless under the education subtitle of the McKinney-Vento Act. To learn more about the definition of homelessness in the McKinney-Vento Act, try Lesson 1: Definition of Homelessness.

  6. Verification of a homeless living situation suffices for determining Head Start eligibility (i.e., no documentation of income is required).

    True or False?  Answer

    TRUE - Children who are experiencing homelessness are categorically eligible for Head Start. To learn more, try Lesson 2: Eligibility.

  7. A child experiencing homelessness must be given priority consideration based on selection criteria for enrollment in Head Start.

    True or False?  Answer

    TRUE - The Head Start Act requires regulations to be issued stating that Head Start programs must identify and give priority consideration based on selection criteria to homeless children for enrollment. To learn more about enrollment for children who are experiencing homelessness, try Lesson 4: Enrollment.

  8. Head Start agencies must conduct outreach activities to identify young homeless children.

    True or False?  Answer

    TRUE - Head Start agencies must make efforts to identify children experiencing homelessness. To learn more about outreach activities, try Lesson 3: Identification & Outreach.

  9. Head Start agencies must coordinate with McKinney-Vento local school district liaisons.

    True or False?  Answer

    TRUE - In serving those experiencing homelessness, Head Start agencies must coordinate with McKinney-Vento local school district liaisons. To learn more, try Lesson 6: Community Collaborations.

  10. Moving from one school or educational program to another when a family is homeless or highly mobile has a negative impact on school-aged children, but preschool-aged children are generally able to adjust quickly.

    True or False?  Answer

    False - Young children, both school-aged and preschool-aged, suffer from the ill effects of mobility that accompanies homelessness. To learn more about the impact of homelessness on young children, try Lesson 1: Definition of Homelessness.

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Last Updated: July 15, 2014