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School-based Practice with Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness$

James Canfield

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780190213053

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2015

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190213053.001.0001

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Who Are the Homeless?

Who Are the Homeless?

(p.1) 1 Who Are the Homeless?
School-based Practice with Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness

James P. Canfield

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter 1 is an introduction to the topic of children and youth experiencing homelessness in the context of school social work and other related professional practice. It focuses on a conceptual and theoretical lens to view homelessness in our school-based practice, starting with a discussion on the federal definitions of homelessness. From there, the chapter moves on to conceptualizing homelessness as a dimensional experience rather than a static status. The ecological-systems perspective is briefly discussed as a possible theoretical framework to organize our school-based practice, and then discussed using the evidence-based practice process in our school social work practice with children and youth experiencing homelessness. The chapter concludes by providing a brief description of the structure and the logic of the book.

Keywords:   child homelessness, conceptualization of homelessness, evidence-based practice, federal definitions, systems theory

“We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams …”

—Arthur O’Shaughnessy

Two twin girls, about eight years old, sat in the disheveled waiting room of a local homeless coalition. Old magazines and colored-in coloring books were strewn about the room like unraked leaves on a drafty fall morning. Their parents were the last to see the Reverend, an affable and hard-working man whose meetings held the hope of referrals and donations. This was the end of “walk-in” day, wherein people experiencing homelessness could come into the homeless coalition without an appointment for help. The two girls waited for their parents by watching the very, very end of Finding Nemo (the aforementioned Nemo had been found and reunited with his father at this point). Their contented affect contrasted the forlorn look the people who usually occupied those seats wore, but hinted at their comfort in these types of waiting rooms and situations.

The two girls watched the movie through the credits, reading each line as a condemned prisoner reading his last words—holding on for any extra seconds of life and enjoyment. Like a guillotine blade falling, the movie returned to the DVD menu screen and the girls would need an adult to restart the movie. They approached the MSW intern entrusted to oversee and organize “walk-in” day and asked him if he could restart the movie. The intern was good-natured and hard-working, but a little naïve—he was barely old enough to legally order a drink, but did really well in his social work studies. He looked for where the secretary (who was out that day) kept the remote, but could not find it. Finally, he went up to the DVD (p.2) player and tried pressing the buttons but with no luck. The two girls, accustomed to defeat and futility when solutions were so close, said, “It’s OK. Thanks,” and made a familiar, weighted trudge to their seats. The MSW intern, who genuinely felt bad he couldn’t help, went back to keeping order to the “walk-in” day that would be over once the girls’ parents left their meeting.

The girls ached for something to do—all of the crayons were in a Ziploc bag and were that purplish gray color that happens to all old crayons stuffed together in a bag. But even if they had a wide selection of colors, and brand new pointy crayons, they had nothing to color in. So as kids do, they began to explore the room.

In a moment of keen awareness, the young intern intercepted the girls before they got to the expensive copy machine not-for-profits such as this protected with the fierceness of a Viking raid. He offered to come up with an activity. He asked them, “Do you guys want to play a game? Do you guys want to play hangman?”

The twins lit up and said in that eerie unison only twins can produce, “Can we play scrambles?”

“What’s that?”

“It’s our favorite. It’s those games where you unscramble letters to make words!” they said sped through in perfect harmony.

So the three played scrambles. The intern started with easy words like “ball” and “ship” which soon gave way to harder words like “basketball” and “cruise.” The girls were so good at this game they would often unscramble the letters into words before the intern finished writing all of the letters on the sheet of paper. Finally, in perfect union, they wanted “a really, really, really, really, really hard one.” So the intern scrambled “zygomorphic.”

He went back to overseeing the empty waiting room while the girls got to work. After about five minutes, they brought the paper to the intern and asked him if this was the right word. He started to reply “well its clo …” but his jaw went off a cliff like a coyote chasing a roadrunner before he finished what he was about to say. They had unscrambled it. The two twin girls sitting in the waiting room of a local homeless coalition had unscrambled the word “zygomorphic,” a word the intern only knew because of studying for the GRE a year earlier.

“How …? How did you figure this out?” asked the intern in a surprised but genuine and honest way that respected the obvious intelligence in front of him.

(p.3) “Well, we knew morph was a word, ic usually comes at the end, g and z won’t go next to each other, so it was this or gyzomorphic,” they explained to the intern, “we guessed it was zygomorphic. What does it mean?”

“I, uh, don’t really, uh remember …” the intern stammered trying to hide his embarrassment.

“Can we look it up?”

So the three looked up the word zygomorphic (it means something can be cut in a way so that the two halves are mirror images) and began just talking. And their genius unfolded. They spoke like adults, but not in a parentified way, just in a calm confidence, especially about reading. They read every Ramona book in the library and were impressed by the intern’s memory of Ramona the Brave. The intern then asked what he thought was an innocuous question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” expecting the “usual” responses: teacher, doctor, police officer, Beyonce.

The two girls responded without hesitation, “a worker.”

“Like a social worker?” the intern asked, beaming with professional pride. We make a difference he thought.

“No, like one at Winn Dixie (a grocery store),” one of the twins said.

“No, Lowes (a hardware store) would be better, they pay more,” the other eight-year-old twin corrected her sister, “yeah that would be good.”

“Wait, you guys don’t want to be doctors or lawyers or teachers?!? You guys are so smart; you could be whatever you want! Anything you want!”

“Wait. We could be teachers or doctors? Really? No we can’t,” they said as they dropkicked the intern’s heart into his conscience.

“Wait, why … why not?”

Like a little leaguer striking out swinging returning to an overbearing coach, they quickly shrugged, “Ahdonknow.”

The intern was always at the top of his class, but all of the schooling and “A” papers he wrote did not give him a prescribed answer to this situation. So he spoke honestly from that area of the brain that takes over when one needs to say something with absolute belief, “Listen to me; you girls are the smartest people I have ever met. You girls are so smart that whatever you really want to be, you will be it. Thank you for talking to me.”

Before the girls could respond, their parents stepped out of the Reverend’s office. They where hunched over wearing the weight of disappointment yet again. “Girls! We need to get going! Now!” the Mom firmly told her daughters. They dutifully and abruptly packed up and said a quick and smiley (p.4) “bye” to the intern and left through the door, most likely to wait in line at the family shelter a couple of miles away.

I never found out what happened to those two girls. That experience is the reason why I research and work with homeless children and youth. All children at the very least deserve hope, and to hear those bright and intelligent kids tell me that their childhood dream was to become a worker at a grocery store still affects me to this day. I would like to think that they grew up into highly successful people, but the reality is that like many children and youth in their situation, they face many challenges to future success. Child homelessness is a growing issue for our communities and schools. An estimated 2.3 to 3.5 million individuals experience homelessness throughout the course of a year (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2009) and 40% of these individuals are thought to be children (Urban Institute, 2000 as cited in National Coalition for the Homeless, 2009; Rukmana, 2008). These numbers do not reflect the recent housing crisis, which most likely increased the number of homeless families with children, but these estimates do not include those who do not seek services, drastically underestimating the actual count of those experiencing homelessness (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2009).

Over the last 100 years, our view of homelessness has changed from predominately single, nomadic vagabonds, bums, and hobos, or in the case of children, scamps and scallywags, to understanding that entire families can become homeless. We also understand that homelessness should be thought of as a multifaceted experience, with different factors or systems influencing a homeless individual or family’s situation (Nooe & Patterson, 2010; Rafferty, Shinn, & Weitzman, 2004). Oftentimes, homelessness is an experience of transience—meaning those experiencing homelessness frequently move between different housing and homeless situations. For children and youth, transience manifests itself as unplanned school mobility (Julianelle & Foscarinis, 2003). Unexpectedly moving between schools places homeless children behind their peers in academic achievement from missing school days, possibly delaying the diagnosis of learning disabilities, and/or other problems associated with changing schools (Julianelle & Foscarinis, 2003). These problems stem from difficulties in accessing education along with other personal or familial barriers to education (Biggar, (p.5) 2001; Jozefowicz-Simbeni & Israel, 2006; Julianelle & Foscarinis, 2003; Urban Institute, 2004).

We as school social workers and related-services professionals are frequently at the forefront of addressing these barriers, often through carrying out important policy provisions. This chapter will provide us with a foundation of how we should approach homelessness in our practice as school social workers and related-services professionals. We will go through different perspectives about homelessness, begin our examination of policy aspects in our practice through discussing federal definitions, and organize our thoughts on this complex issue. Finally, we will discuss using the evidence-based practice model to address homelessness in our schools.

What Is Homelessness?

Before we talk about how we can address homelessness in our schools, we should sharpen our focus by developing an understanding of what is homelessness. It is a complex issue without a conclusive, universally agreed-upon definition. However, as we will discuss a little later in the book, school-based practice with homeless children and youth often revolves around carrying out federal policy provisions, so a good place to start would be the US federal definitions of homelessness. The definitions will give us a broad and general description of what homelessness is, but more importantly, it helps us understand who is eligible for services.

Several different federal agencies address homelessness and may have their own specific definition, but we will focus on two specifically: the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Education (DOE). Here is HUD’s general definition of who is considered homeless:

an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence; and an individual who has a primary nighttime residence that is: 1) a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations (including welfare hotels, congregate shelters, and transitional housing for the mentally ill), 2) an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized, or 3) a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.

(US Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2007)

(p.6) The Department of Education uses the same basic definition, but also includes migrant farm children, foster care children, and children who are “doubled up.” This means that a child lives, in a nonpermanent situation, with relatives or friends (think of “couch surfing”).

There are two important aspects of the definition we should consider: first, the federal definition includes many different ways someone could be homeless. For example, someone or a family could be homeless if they are sleeping in their car, living in an abandoned building, or staying in a homeless shelter (Congressional Research Service, 2005). We will discuss the implications of this in the coming sections. And the second is the phrase: “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” This phrase will show up several times as we talk about homelessness, and as we think of homelessness, fixed, regular, and adequate are the guidelines we should follow when determining who is considered to be experiencing homelessness.

How We Think of Homelessness …

. . . as a Status

Often, practice and research take a de facto approach to characterizing homelessness. We often treat homelessness as a status: one either is or is not homeless. Basically, anyone fitting the definitions is considered “homeless,” regardless of where they are staying (e.g., shelter, car, public park) or how they became homeless (natural disasters, domestic violence, poor economic conditions, etc.). On its face, this makes sense. Why not call the people who fit the definition of homelessness, “homeless”? However, this approach belies the complexity that experiencing homelessness is for people, especially children and youth. Nor does it take into account the unique elements that each case of homelessness contains and the subsequent repercussions of these elements on our interventions. We must recognize that there may be systematic differences in each of the various scenarios in which a child could be considered homeless. For example, a child who resides in a transitional housing program may have access to well-lit, quiet, and safe places to study, whereas a youth who is staying in a shelter may not have access to a computer to complete assignments or may not be able to concentrate because of the noise level at an emergency shelter.

Thinking of or treating homelessness as a status has confounded over 25 years of research on the subject. Buckner’s 2008 systematic review assessed the body of literature on studies comparing homeless children to (p.7) their impoverished, but housed peers. He found little consistency in the findings: Some studies found that homeless children had worse outcomes, whereas others found that impoverished, but housed, children suffered more (Buckner, 2008). One of his conclusions is that much of the inconsistency is because we often treat all homeless children as an aggregate, meaning we treat homelessness as a status, rather than viewing the situation as an experience.

. . . as an Experience

We should think of homelessness as an experience, rather than a status. The federal definition of homelessness inherently includes different situations wherein someone could be considered homeless. Each of these situations, such as sleeping in a public place or residing in a welfare motel, may offer different risks, stressors, or other factors associated with each experience. Every situation of homelessness brings with it unique circumstances and challenges that will impact practice with homeless children and youth. It is a “constellation of risk factors” that may impact a given outcome (Rafferty, Shinn, & Weitzman, 2004). Our understanding of the different elements inherent to a situation of homelessness is important to appropriately practicing with homeless children and youth.

One of those key elements of conceptualizing homelessness as an experience revolves around time. For families, the US shelter system is based on our thinking that homelessness was a temporary experience. Families were just “knocked off their feet” and just needed some time to recover. So shelters were built and intended to be the main form of support, mainly serving as a stopgap between periods of housing. However, we now understand that homelessness may be a long-term experience. And on top of this, homeless families can cycle through housing and homeless situations. Time aspects of homelessness can be generally broken up in three ways: transitional, episodic, and chronic (Hule & Culhane, 1998, cited in McAllister et al., 2010). Transitional homelessness is the traditional view of homelessness. Families who are shifting in-between housing situations are experiencing transitional homelessness, meaning families become homeless in emergency or temporary situations. Some children and families shuffle in and out of homeless situations in an episodic way. They may find safe, fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime housing for a month, then spend two months on the streets, followed by a week or two of housing, then back to the shelter for a spell, and so on. This experience is a very common one for the children and youth we serve in schools because oftentimes families do not find permanent solutions (p.8) to their housing needs. Finally, the chronically homeless are those who are permanently entrenched on the streets, in shelters, or other situations of homelessness.

A Perspective on Homelessness

It can be easy to get lost in all of the different situations, circumstances, and conditions of homelessness. The previous section outlines some of the complexities in a general way, but we need a way to organize our thoughts. An easy way to do this is to adopt an ecological-systems perspective when thinking about homelessness. This perspective provides a framework for our understanding and a foundation to develop interventions. The ecological-systems perspective originally comes from biology and states that all organisms are systems, participate in super-systems, and are made up of subsystems (Payne, 2014). So for social workers and other related professions, practice should view a social problem, such as homelessness, as a collection of different factors rather than focusing on the reduced parts of an issue (Payne, 2014; Turner, 1996). So if we adopt the ecological-systems perspective, we would view homelessness as a result of the relationships between any and all of the interrelated factors that may impact a situation (Nooe & Patterson, 2010). This ranges from micro-level interpersonal factors such as addiction, mental health, or education, to larger societal components such as housing prices, job availability, and wages (Nooe & Patterson, 2010).

Our schools can be considered systems. For school social workers and related professionals, our practice setting is where the organizational focus is, not on social services, counseling, or mental health treatment. Because of this, we often contend with a multitude of different factors that may influence our practice (Allen-Meares, 2010), necessitating a need to have an understanding of how different systems can impact situations our students find themselves in as well as our practice interventions. Formal, informal, and societal systems outside of the school will impact how individuals or families become or stay homeless, or leave homelessness (Nooe & Patterson, 2010), and the different systems that make up an educational agency will impact the effectiveness of our interventions. We should start thinking of these different systems as either barriers or facilitators to educational opportunity for homeless children (Julianelle & Foscarinis, 2003). As children navigate the homeless experience, they confront multiple systems that influence, both positively and negatively, their ability to (p.9) obtain educational opportunities. As we will see in the upcoming chapters, ameliorating the barriers or improving facilitators to both outcomes for children and youth and our practice is rooted in policy approaches and is a cornerstone of how schools address the problem of homelessness for their students.

Article Spotlight: Nooe and Patterson’s 2010 article on an ecological perspective of homelessness is a very comprehensive look at many of the factors that can influence why people become and stay homeless. Nooe and Patterson (2010) present a model of homelessness that includes many different factors followed by text explaining each. It is a thorough introduction on the subject and is an excellent article to gain a lot of information on this topic quickly.

Nooe, R. & Patterson, D. (2010). The ecology of homelessness. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 20, 105–152.

Using Evidence-Based Practice

As we practice with children experiencing homelessness, we should strive to use the evidence-based practice (EBP) model. Often when we think of EBP we only think of the science and research portion of it. While it is true that empirical evidence does play a role in EBP, it is only one of three aspects of the model. First and foremost, EBP is a process, a way to make practice decisions (Rubin & Babbie, 2010). We must include the clients and their attributes. We have to ask ourselves: What does the client bring and what are his or her wishes? For us practicing with homeless children, this means identifying and examining the different systems and factors inherent to an experience of homelessness in addition to the strengths of our clients. For example, we need to gain an understanding of the different barriers a homeless child faces. Next, we must leverage our practice experience and skills. In EBP, we have to use interventions that we as practitioners know how to use. For example, if behavior modification techniques have been shown to improve an outcome, but we have no experience with behavior modification techniques, we need to select a different intervention for our use. Finally, we need to examine what the available evidence tells us to be effective. Ideally this is the empirical (p.10) research, but if there are little or no studies available, we can, at the very least, consult an expert.

The Role of School Social Workers and Other School-Based Practitioners

School social workers and other school-based practitioners play an important role in addressing the impact of experiencing homelessness on schools and students. In general, school social workers are often used to support the mission of a school and provide settings for both the faculty and staff to facilitate education and for students to learn (Massat, Constable, McDonald, & Flynn, 2009). Our school-based practice and efforts to help homeless children and youth often involves a lot of work and collaboration with not only other professionals in the school (e.g., teachers, administrators, lunch and transportation staff) but also other agencies and professionals outside of the school. We must remember that homelessness is not actually experienced in school. It is an issue outside of the purview of a school that impacts the facilitation of education, the purpose of a school. So when we address homelessness in our practice, we as school social workers or other school-based practitioners are tasked with ameliorating the negative impacts of experiencing homelessness, which occurs outside the school, on what happens inside the school, at the school-level as well as to individual students.

As a note, this book is part of a series on various populations or issues in school social work practice. While it is important to discuss homeless in a greater context, including strategies designed to return people to housing, this book focuses more on how we address homelessness in our school-based practice. Strategies to end homelessness and increase affordable housing are valuable discussions that deserve their own focus. We will discuss some background information on why people become homeless to build a foundation for our knowledge, but everything we will discuss will be in the context of how it impacts both the students and schools. As school-based practitioners, much of what we do while working with children and youth experiencing homelessness revolves around two things: first, we work to remove and address the barriers homeless children and youth face when pursuing education and then to do this, we typically administer and facilitate the provisions of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (MVA). The policy and its guidelines are why our practice, and thus our discussion about homeless children and youth, can afford to be a little idiosyncratic. Although there are many common factors between the homeless experiences and general (p.11) poverty experiences, we are guided by a policy that specifically addresses homelessness and is a major foundation of our practice.

As we move through the rest of the book, we will use this chapter as a foundation. Homelessness is a complex experience that transcends simple explanations and interventions. On top of this, it is a growing concern for our schools and will continue to be an issue that communities must address. Ecological-systems perspective gives us a good way to organize our thinking on homelessness. This perspective will allow us to account for much of the complexity in an experience of homelessness, while still granting us a clear framework to develop our interventions.


Homelessness is often thought of as a status, meaning we like to think that one is either homeless or not homeless. However, this approach has confounded over 25 years of literature and does not allow for us to take into account all of the unique factors that are inherent to a homeless situation. Much of the complexity of homelessness stems from all of the different aspects and circumstances that impact outcomes. The federal definition of homelessness provides examples of how different situations, each with their own stressors and risk factors, can all be considered homeless. We should instead think of homelessness as an experience—it contains a multitude of different elements that can affect a given outcome. As we turn our thoughts into actions through our practice, the foundation underpinning our interventions should take into account the complexity of the systems that influence outcomes for homeless children by viewing them as either barriers or facilitators.

Finally, we must combine client attributes, practitioner knowledge and skills, and available evidence to be EBP practitioners. All three components of EBP must be included in our practice decisions. This book will be a guide to all three aspects of EBP with homeless children and youth. We will gain a better understanding of the clients we serve and find out a little more about the systems that can impact our practice. We will develop our knowledge and skills by examining the relevant policy that dominates our practice interventions as school social workers and other related professionals. Throughout this, we will be examining empirical studies and the literature to gives us a sturdy research-based foundation to practice with homeless children.

The rest of the book builds upon the foundation of this chapter. Now that we have a good base and understanding of our thinking about what homelessness is, we can move on to more detailed and nuanced information about (p.12) homelessness in our practice. Chapter 2 will help us expand our foundation understanding of homelessness by looking at the literature of how homelessness impacts children and youth, develop an understanding of how the literature has shaped and been shaped by our thinking, and how people become homeless. We will then move on to a discussion of the MVA, the policy that guides our practice in both chapter 3, which includes a review of the policy, and chapter 4, which focuses more on the practice implications of the legislation. Using all of the information from the first four chapters, we will then discuss a practice perspective for our work with homeless children and youth in the final chapter.

Practice Takeaways

  • Homelessness is a complex issue.

  • Homeless is defined as those who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.

  • We should view homelessness as an experience, rather than a situation.

  • There are many different situations that can still be considered homelessness.

  • Ecological-systems theory provides a good way to organize the complexity of homelessness.