Educating America's homeless youth through reinforcement of the McKinney Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

Author:Crook, Candace
  1. INTRODUCTION

    Oftentimes it is easy to ignore the homeless man on the street corner asking for spare change or the "bag ladies" living alone in alleys as the world passes them by. It is not surprising to hear people whisper under their breath that these people choose that lifestyle or that they do not take personal responsibility for the bad decisions that resulted in his or her current plight. However, what is indeed surprising is the reality that one will see when stereotypes are set aside.

    Entire families have joined the ranks of the homeless population in America. The startling reality is that children are among the homeless due to complex circumstances beyond their control and understanding. These children are forced to endure a transient lifestyle and as a result face numerous emotional, physical, and mental challenges that their peers do not. The unforgiving circumstances placed on these innocent children can leave traumatic effects that many adults could never attempt to imagine. Sadly enough, it is the children who are among the most vulnerable of the homeless population and who "need extra understanding and help because they played no part in becoming homeless." (1)

    Who are the Homeless Youth?

    The federal government has defined homeless children as "individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence." (2) Examples of this include:

    children who are sharing the housing of other persons...; are living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds...; are living in emergency or transitional shelters; [and] children ... 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. (3) This definition specifically includes children in homeless families as well as unaccompanied children who have run away from home or institutional care. There are numerous national estimates of the homeless population in the United States. However, since being homeless is often a temporary condition, there is no definitive representation of how many people actually experience being homeless in a given year. (4) Nonetheless, it is estimated that anywhere between 1.6 and 2.8 million children run away from their homes each year, and 1.35 million children of homeless families may at some point also face a lack of a fixed residence. (5)

    For these children, some of the most basic necessities of normal life are nearly impossible to acquire. Included in this list of necessities is an adequate education. To a homeless child, the idea of succeeding in school may seem far-fetched when there are thoughts of having a stable home to live in, clean clothes to wear, and warm food to eat. Instead of living carefree lives like children should, these children suffer through the struggle of having to survive impossible conditions at a young age. Stability is vital for a child's healthy development, but it is not practicable for a homeless child who faces a life of constant change.

  2. THE DEVASTATING EFFECTS OF BEING A HOMELESS CHILD

    Physical, Emotional, and Mental Deterioration

    In order to adequately understand the harsh impact that homelessness has on the educational opportunities of children, it is Important to recognize the nature of homelessness itself. Before a homeless child's lack of education can come to the forefront of concern it is necessary to see the impact that homelessness has on a child's physical, emotional, and mental health. Being homeless can wreak havoc on a child's physical wellbeing; the lack of a permanent residence, having to seek shelter in crowded living situations, and constant exposure to the elements lead to high rates of illness for homeless children. (6) In particular, homeless children "suffer from asthma and elevated blood lead levels" at higher rates than children with a fixed residence, and they are also more likely to make emergency rooms visits and to be hospitalized. (7)

    In addition to sickness taking a toll on a child's body, being homeless places children at risk of abuse and violence. As a result of living in public places, homeless children risk becoming victims of physical and sexual assaults, and are sometimes left to barter for food and shelter by taking part in sexual acts. (8) It is no surprise that a child's emotional state is shaken, given the traumatic physical effects of homelessness.

    Tragically, homelessness has the potential to create emotional baggage that a child carries into adulthood; childhood consists of some of the most sensitive years in a person's development. However, it is impossible for homeless children to grow and develop individualism when they fear being stigmatized by their peers due to their noticeably poor condition. Forty-seven percent of homeless children have emotional problems such as anxiety, depression, and withdrawal compared to only eighteen percent of other children. (9) Withdrawing from other children and becoming isolated from their communities contributes significantly to accumulated stress and eventually leads to feelings of loneliness, sadness, and fear. (10) These feelings take an unquestionable toll and usually result in low self-esteem, poor social skills, and unruly behavior. (11) Homeless children usually fail to receive medical attention for their emotional problems and extreme psychological damages can result without access to an adequate support system or services to deal with the trauma of being homeless, extreme psychological damage can result.

    In addition to the physical and emotional barriers faced by homeless children, their mental stability is also at risk. Homeless children suffer from high rates of developmental delays, and are at an even higher risk for learning disabilities. (12) Often, children in homeless families do not have parents with the time to be mindful of their developmental needs, resulting in these needs going unmet. As a result, these children are more likely to repeat the same grades multiple times or drop out of school completely.

    Interrupted Education

    After taking notice of the many obstacles homeless children face in their everyday lives, it is no surprise that homelessness drastically interrupts a homeless child's education. The absence of a home and the constant mobility that come with homelessness have been ranked by psychologists as two of the primary reasons for a homeless child's poor attendance and performance in school. (13) Since school districts nationwide impose strict requirements for entry into their schools, registering a homeless child in a public school may...

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