Kidsdata.org's indicators on homeless children come from two data sources, each of which defines homelessness differently.
- The number and percentage of homeless public school students come from the National Center for Homeless Education. These data are based on the McKinney-Vento Act definition, which includes students whose primary nighttime residence is a shelter, hotel, or motel; who are doubled-up with another family temporarily because of economic hardship; or who are unsheltered. These data only are available at the state level.
- The number and percentage of homeless people in families is collected by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). HUD defines homelessness as living in shelters or areas not designed for human habitation. This definition results in much lower numbers than the indicator based on the McKinney-Vento definition, because they exclude those living doubled-up with another family and those living in hotels or motels, who together accounted for 72% of all homeless students in the U.S. in 2007-08. Only 28% of homeless students in the U.S. were unsheltered or living in shelter programs that year.
Both of these data sources likely underestimate the extent of homelessness among children and youth, because children too young for school and students who have dropped out are excluded from the count of public school students, and locating and counting unsheltered people is notoriously difficult.
Homelessness causes severe trauma to children, disrupting their relationships, putting their health and safety at risk, and hampering their development. Homeless children are more likely than other children to have physical and mental health problems, to experience hunger, and to have educational problems (1, 2). Many of these children and youth experience deep poverty, instability and exposure to domestic violence before becoming homeless, and homelessness increases their vulnerability to additional trauma (1, 2). In addition to the risks faced by homeless children, youth without homes are far more likely than their peers to be infected with HIV (3).
According to 2010 estimates from the National Center on Family Homelessness, approximately 1.6 million children ages 0-18 in the U.S., or about 1 in 45, are homeless each year. California alone accounted for 25% or more of all homeless children in the U.S. between 2006 and 2010. California ranked 46th out of the 50 states in the extent of child homelessness in 2010, with 1 being the best and 50 being the worst (1).
Sources for this narrative:
1. National Center on Family Homelessness. (2010). Americas youngest outcasts: State report card on child homelessness. Retrieved from: http://www.homelesschildrenamerica.org/index.php
2. Bassuk, E. L. & Friedman, S. M. (2005). Facts on trauma and homeless children. National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Retrieved from:
3. National Coalition for the Homeless. (2008). Homeless youth. Retrieved from:
Family homelessness often is associated with extreme poverty, lack of access to affordable housing, weak social networks, and domestic violence (1). Homelessness prevention policies can operate at three levels: preventing families from becoming homeless in the first place; intervening early during a first spell of homelessness to return the family to housing; and ending long-term homelessness. Addressing the needs of homeless children and youth involves family support and education policy, as well.
According to research and subject experts, policy and program options that could address family homelessness and housing affordability include:
- Unifying assessment practices across county and community-based agencies to identify families at risk of homelessness; providing housing subsidies or cash assistance for mortgage and rent can help families either stay in their homes or gain stable housing; and facilitating eviction prevention through housing courts and landlord-tenant mediation (1)
- Combating homelessness among unaccompanied youth by providing individualized goal-based service planning, ongoing support services connected to mainstream resources, independent living skills training, connections to trustworthy and supportive adults and networks, and employment and education (2)
- Preventing long-term homelessness by providing “Housing First,” an approach to rapidly transitioning families out of shelter and into sustainable housing through case management and supportive services (1)
- Providing employment and vocational training to parents to help them earn income, and providing comprehensive support to the whole family, e.g. children’s services, education, parenting programs, mental health or substance abuse services, case management, and/or other needed support (1)
- Addressing domestic violence, when present, as it is a contributing factor for homelessness (1, 3)
- Effectively implementing federal law that requires removing barriers preventing homeless children from receiving a quality education, including providing transportation to the child’s school of origin (their “home” school), waiving documentation requirements for school enrollment, and providing truly equal access to school (4, 5)
- Promoting financial asset development that can make it possible for families to own their own homes. Options include using public funds toward Individual Development Accounts, leveraging the Earned Income Tax Credit, curtailing predatory lending, and eliminating asset limits on some public programs (6)
For more policy ideas on child homelessness and housing, visit the Research & Links section on kidsdata.org, or the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, National Center on Family Homelessness, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, National Low Income Housing Coalition, and the Corporation for Supportive Housing. Also see Policy Implications for the topics Family Income & Poverty, and Dating & Domestic Violence on kidsdata.org.
Sources for this narrative:
1. U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. (2010). Federal strategic plan supplemental document: Homelessness among families with children.
2. U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. (2010). Opening doors: Federal strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness. Retrieved from: http://www.usich.gov/opening_doors
3. National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. (2009). Some facts on homelessness, housing, and violence against women. Retrieved from: www.nlchp.org/content/pubs/Some%20Facts%20on%20Homeless%20and%20DV.pdf
4. National Center on Family Homelessness. (2010). America’s youngest outcasts: State report card on child homelessness. Retrieved from: http://www.homelesschildrenamerica.org/index.php
5. Tars, E. S. (2009). Separate & unequal in the same classroom: Homeless students in America’s public schools. (Loyola Public Interest Law Reporter). Retrieved from:
6. National Governors Association. (2006). State policy options to encourage asset development for low-income families. Retrieved: http://www.nga.org/files/live/sites/NGA/files/pdf/06StatePolicyOptionstoEncourageAssetDevelopment.pdf;jsessionid=DB8E29B2AAD414A294952E45E6355E6F
In California, 193,796 students in grades K-12, or 3.1% of all public school students, were reported to be homeless in 2010, a 36% increase from 2004, but a decrease from 2009. During the homeless census in January 2007, 41,000 people in families with children were living in shelters or areas not intended for human habitation. These families with children comprised 25.7% of homeless people in California. People in families with children accounted for a high of 84.2% of homeless people in Imperial County, and a low of 9.3% in San Francisco.