Homelessness and Its Effects on Children

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Table of contents

  1. Homelessness and Children
  2. Description of Problem
    Real Example
  3. Conclusion
  4. Works Cited

Homelessness and Children

Homelessness is an individual who lacks housing. For example, living in shelters, temporary living accommodations (with family or friends), living on the streets, abandoned buildings, in a vehicle, children awaiting foster care, an individual or family who received an eviction notice to leave within 14 days, any unstable non-permanent situation. I will be exploring the effects homelessness has on children.

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Description of Problem

Many children within the United States face the trauma of homelessness. Homelessness is defined as a person who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. This vulnerable population many times gets overlooked, but they are in fact at a high risk for future problems. “A child experiencing homelessness is at high risk for malnutrition, mental health disorders, and poor academic outcomes, among other developmental and social problems.” (Canfield, 2014, p. 165) The population of homeless children is very vulnerable due to the fact they are very disadvantaged to housed peers. The biggest disadvantage of homeless children is their lack of education. By the time homeless children reach school age, their homelessness affects their social, physical, and academic lives. These children face unstable living conditions, transportation issues, residency proof problems, health insurance, and lack of funds.

You may be wondering why homeless children’s education is affected. These children face unexpected change of schools, which then results in poor attendance and causes children to fall behind their peers. A lot of times when children fall behind academically, they become embarrassed and stop trying in the classroom or don’t attend school at all. Because of their lack of education, they may become misdiagnosed with mental disorders. When in fact, these homeless children lack attention, affection, and the attachment they need. They become accustomed to constant moving from place to place they tend to be distant from everything around them. With the absence of normality, homeless children become exposed to so much more than housed peers, and it causes delays within the child. “Children experiencing homelessness are at risk for developmental delays- especially in language functioning and for social-emotional challenges.” (Haskett, Armstrong, & Tisdale, 2016, p. 123)

During the developmental stage of elementary years (8-12 years old) homeless children face many challenges. Homeless children’s social skills, attachment skills, and learning skills are affected. At this age, they are too young to fully understand, leading to emotional distress. Families who face poverty, violence, or income inconsistencies can’t interact with their children the way well-being housed families can. Their social skills are compromised because they are constantly moving whether it’s between shelters, families’ homes, or apartment to apartment. Because of the constant movement, they have little interaction with caregivers, other children, teachers or social workers. Their attachment to people falls loose with the constant surrounding of strangers.

I feel school should be their safe zone but even at school children fall distant. Many times, “homeless children do not wish to seek services for fear of being outed, meaning their peers will find out about their situation. The reluctance to admit to homelessness thus hampers practice efforts.” (Canfield, 2014, p. 166) With the detachment of homeless children in school it results in poor attendance, failure to develop new interest, lack of relationship with peers, delayed reading and academics, and malnutrition. “Children and youths experiencing homelessness scored below grade level on tests for math, reading, and spelling than those students who are not experiencing homelessness.” (Wilkins, Mullins, Mahan, & Canfield, 2015, p. 58)

Students who come from well put together homes do not face many of the challenges of homeless children. Their caregivers can sit down work and interact with their children. When these children go to school, they have adequate amounts of sleep to receive good grades and stay ahead academically. Also, housed children have normal healthy relationships with caregivers, teachers, and can easily make friends. Unlike homeless children they do not get the feelings of being overwhelmed and helpless. Housed children don’t go to bed at night worrying where they are going to sleep tomorrow, or watch their parents go day to day hurting. So much pressure and stress are put on homeless children at such a young age causing psychological problems within the child.


“The United States is facing an epidemic in which one in 30 children and youths in this country experience homelessness.” (Wilkins, Mullins, Mahan, & Canfield, 2015, p. 57) According to the State Education Department in July 2016 most homeless students in New York State resided in New York City. For example, between 2014-2015 New York State had 118,639 homeless students and 86,694 were living in New York City.

Risk for health problems begins before birth. Chavkin, Kristal, Seabron, and Guigli (1987) compared the reproductive experience of 401 homeless women in welfare hotels in New York City with that of 13,249 women in public housing and with all live births in New York City during the same time period. Significantly more of the homeless women had low birth-weight babies. Infant mortality was also high: 25 deaths per 1,000 live births among the homeless women, compared with 17 per 1,000 for housed poor women and 12 per 1,000 for women citywide.

Young children who are homeless often suffer from emotional problems. Homeless children cry more easily, react more intensely when upset, tend to overreact to small things, and are easily upset. One in five homeless children ages three to six years demonstrate extreme emotional distress warranting professional intervention. Twelve percent have clinically diagnosed problems with anxiety, depression and withdrawal, and 16 percent have behavior problems demonstrated by severe aggression and hostility.

Real Example

I have witnessed a homeless child first hand. While this child was homeless he faced many problems. When my godson was just 6 years old, his mother was in an abusive relationship. The day she finally decided she had enough was the same day the family had become homeless. His mother changed the locks on her doors, only resulting in the man kicking the door down and attacking her. She grew the courage to call the police and they arrested the man. Her landlord was upset at the broken door so he asked her move. She was placed in a domestic home for abused woman with her two children. The two children and herself shared one room with all their belongings. Their belongings were minimal because they couldn’t only bring what they can carry. She left behind furniture, clothes, houseware, and the children’s toys.

The children changed schools two times during this move. After being moved from the domestic home, she was transferred to a agency called Center for Safety and Change which was a women shelter. Their absences became red flags and was causing the children to fall behind. The children would cry that they didn’t want to go to school because they didn’t have any friends and they didn’t want anyone to know where they lived. They became even more upset when they found out they could not invite anyone over.

The shelter provided legal assistance and group sessions where there were people just like her who she could relate to. She became to ashamed of herself because she felt like she let her children down. She met with the Department of Social Services with housing leads but finding a permanent residence was up to her.

During this experience I watched my godson grow so silent and distant right before my eyes. He lost interest in his education. He stopped showing his love for reading books out loud. His teachers explain that he would not focus in class and may have a learning disability. His mother referred him to therapy because he wouldn’t speak to anyone.

I believe therapy did a lot for him. He opened up and built a relationship with his social worker. He expressed to the social worker that he hated moving all the time, he lost all his toys, and he misses his old house with his old friends. Many times, parents or adults don’t realize that being homeless affects children drastically. My godson didn’t have a learning disorder, he just didn’t know how to express his feelings.

Today, their family is in a better place. They moved out of the domestic home after 9 months and found a beautiful 3-bedroom apartment. He is in the 3rd grade and is excelling. He will tell you all the time how much he loves his room and his toys.

One policy known as The McKinney Vento Homelessness Assistance Act has been put in place to help homeless children succeed. This policy works towards helping homeless children succeed in all 50 states. “The federal government enacted the McKinney-Veto Homeless Assistance Act to equip schools with services to help alleviate the many barriers students experiencing homelessness face in pursuit of educational opportunities.” (Wilkins, Mullins, Mahan, & Canfield, 2015, p. 57) This policy ensures homeless children have equal access to free and public education. School workers address problems with transportation, immunizations, residency requirements, lack of birth certificates, school records and guardianship issues. With this policy, they keep homeless children within the same school to reduce the amount of moving around and encourage friendships and relationships.

The act was originally authorized in 1987 and was reauthorized by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 and reauthorized again in 2015 as part of Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). In 2016 it was reauthorized again under the Education for Homeless Children and Youth.

The McKinney Vento Act grants funds to schools to help homeless children achieve success by any means. For example, these grants are used for school lunches, transportation, after school programs, school supplies, violence prevention counseling, etc… “MVA helped to raise school attendance by 17 percent in addition to aiding in the reduction of enrollment-related barriers that children and youths experiencing homelessness encounter.” (Wilkins, Mullins, Mahan, & Canfield, 2015, p. 58) The MVA also assists children in smaller classroom settings to help focus on the child’s learning disabilities.

Other important policy’s put in place are federal benefits. These benefits include public assistant grants, food stamps, and the Woman’s, Infant and Children (WIC) program. More adequate and continuous benefits with an increased supply will prevent families from becoming homeless.

This policy affects social workers in so many ways. We have the opportunity to make a change. Social workers must be aware of as many opportunities as possible in order to better service people. A school social worker can help educate school staff on policies like the McKinney-Vento Act in hopes of helping more students. Many times, people forget homelessness does not take away basic human rights.

In the social work field, there are micro, mezzo, and macro interventions that can be effective in helping homeless children with their developmental challenges. For example, on a micro level some interventions can be social workers working with the children individually. Social workers can begin to counsel the child and the family. Help them receive the resources that are available to them. This can include the funds associated with the McKinney Vento Assistance Act, locating a stable housing, solving the problems of health insurance or income inconsistencies.

On the mezzo level, social workers can help homeless children by setting up workshops for parents who are facing trauma causing homelessness. These workshops can help a population of homeless families begin applying for jobs, housing, social service benefits. In New York State, mezzo social workers can be found in social service agencies, hospitals, schools or therapy sessions. Under the McKinney Vento Assistance Act the Local Education Agency is responsible for helping homeless families. This agency is entitled to find those students who are homeless and assist them in all their needs. They help families with tutoring, special needs, school lunches, referrals to medical, dental, mental, transportation, fees on enrollment, and training programs for parents of homeless children.

On the macro level, policies within New York State are put in effect to help the entire population of homeless children. NYS provides programs to provide support to ensure homeless children and youth have equal access to free public education. The Head Start program is a part of the macro system, free pre-k is entitled to those families who cannot afford to pay for education. Another example is, shelters for homeless families, social workers helping to get families to and from appointments, school, and jobs. The macro level of social work focuses on helping the entire population of homeless children. They want to advocate, create nonprofit organizations, research the issues to solve them, create programs, and educating the community. In my opinion, for the population of homeless children the macro level should be worked on. This population is widely overlooked and social workers should be advocating and creating more ways to help. I believe more shelters should be built which means macro social workers should begin advocating and creating programs that aim to raise money for the cause.

A protective factor to help homeless children can be additional caregiving with relatives. Children watching their parents struggle with stressful situation can use social support which could provide stability and protect children. “Children and adolescents report greater satisfaction in their contact with relatives are less psychologically distressed under stressful conditions and nurturance from parental substitutes within the family appears to be an important buffer against stressful environments, including poverty and parental mental illness.” (Schteingart, Molnar, Klein, Lowe, & Hartmann, 1995, p. 321) This protective factor can help children cope with their social skills and individualism. Homeless children need the sense of consistency in their life, and if they’re in constant contact with other family members (grandma, grandpa, cousins, aunts, or uncles) they will be able to get ease from the trauma they are facing.

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To conclude, the population of homeless children are at risk all over the world. These children face so many disadvantages compared to housed peers. These children face unstable living conditions, transportation issues, residency proof problems, health insurance, and lack of funds. At this developmental stage in their lives they are very vulnerable and require constant interactions with others. Without normal biopsychosocial experiences, these homeless children tend to become delayed and face future developmental problems. By helping these children at school age, we may be able to mold and push them to achieve success. It is very crucial social workers continue to find new ways to mediate the challenges faced by homeless children.

Works Cited

  1. Canfield, J. (2014). The effects of homelessness on children. Journal of Family Issues, 36(2), 165-178.
  2. Chavkin, W., Kristal, A. R., Seabron, F., & Guigli, L. (1987). Reproductive experience of homeless women in welfare hotels in New York City. American Journal of Public Health, 77(9), 1188-1190.
  3. Haskett, M. E., Armstrong, J. M., & Tisdale, J. (2016). Developmental status and social–emotional functioning of young children experiencing homelessness. Early Childhood Education Journal, 44(2), 123-133.
  4. Schteingart, J. S., Molnar, B. E., Klein, T. P., Lowe, S. R., & Hartmann, D. (1995). Family support in the transition to parenting among young homeless women. Family Relations, 44(3), 321-330.
  5. Wilkins, S. M., Mullins, A. B., Mahan, C., & Canfield, J. (2015). The educational barriers of homeless students: A critical review of the literature. School Community Journal, 25(2), 57-80.
  6. McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, 42 U.S.C. § 11431 et seq.
  7. U.S. Department of Education. (2016). Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program: Non-regulatory guidance (Rev. ed.). Retrieved from
  8. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. (2021). The Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress. Retrieved from
  9. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2022). Resources for homeless youth service providers. Retrieved from
  10. Zero to Three. (n.d.). Homelessness and young children: Supporting very young children and their families experiencing homelessness. Retrieved from
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Homelessness and Its Effects on Children. (2019, January 03). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 1, 2023, from
“Homelessness and Its Effects on Children.” GradesFixer, 03 Jan. 2019,
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