Homeless for the Holidays

You may recognize the face of homelessness right in your own classroom.

By Erin Bailey


girl sitting on suitcase with stuffed animal

In Seminole County, Florida near Orlando, a school bus pulls up to a cheap motel and eighteen children board. This two-story building with rusty downspouts and leaking air conditioning units is home to many families, and this isn’t the only such stop the bus will make. Hundreds of families crowd into motels like these where they live week to week, hoping for a break.1

Thinking of homelessness brings to mind dirty, single males, often the victims of addictions or mental illness. Rarely do we think of children. Although it’s difficult to get an accurate count of homeless Americans, the number is estimated to be around 3.5 million. It is believed that about 1.2 million children are included in this number, and as the economy continues to stagnate, the numbers are rising.

Causes and the Results

There are many causes of homelessness that have accounted for a sharp increase in the past eight years: higher housing costs, loss of jobs, low-paying jobs, divorce, domestic violence, and medical emergencies are enough to push many families into homelessness. States with the shortest foreclosure processes see the highest rates in homelessness. Although counter-intuitive, areas that are undergoing an economic boom may also see a rise in homelessness as shortages in housing can cause rents to rise above what is affordable for many families.

So where do families with children go when they are facing such a disaster? Some may move in with family or friends, which may result in splitting up the family. Likewise, shelters often require a segregation of sexes, which divides families at a time when a child’s inner security is already shaken. For many families, staying together is important above all else, so they move into motels, go to campgrounds, or take to their cars—and sometimes even the streets.

Seeing the Signs

What should you look for in students whose families you suspect are having a difficult time? 

  • Children may be very distracted because they are tired, hungry, or because they are worrying about the situation. They may become withdrawn. Homeless children tend to tiptoe through life, trying not to draw attention to themselves and thus their situation since poverty and homelessness hold a stigma in America.
  • They may not have their homework completed on a regular basis. If the electricity has been turned off at home, it is difficult for children to finish homework. Likewise, shelters tend to turn off the lights at a given time each night without regard to homework assignments.
  • You may notice changes in attendance or personality. A typically well-behaved child may become aggressive or argumentative. Stress can cause overly emotional responses to everyday problems, such as missing homework, losing at a recess game, or schedule changes.

Take Action

What can you do if a student shares that he or she is facing homelessness? First, offer your support and let him know that you will help him. Second, let your administration know. Every state has an office for the coordination of education for homeless children and each school must have a coordinator. Homeless pupils can receive free meals and access to all Title I resources. In most states, students who are homeless can attend the school district of their choosing, regardless of address. This ensures that their education can remain uninterrupted until permanent housing can be obtained. The McKinney-Vento Act requires districts to enroll homeless pupils immediately without the typical paperwork—birth certificate, immunization records, transcripts, etc.

Unfortunately, homelessness will continue to affect families across the nation. As educators, we are in a unique position to help our students through one of the most trying experiences of their young lives. Using the lessons below, we can also raise awareness and create compassion for those in need.

1 60 Minutes, “Hard Times Generation”Produced by Anderson, Robert G., Young, Nicole, and Ruetenik,  Daniel. (2011; New York: CBS News, March 6.), Video.

Lesson Ideas:

Home Away from Home

This lesson for grades k-5 emphasizes compassion for the homeless. After reading Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting, participants make fleece scarves that can be donated to a shelter. An alternate idea is to make fleece blankets to donate.

Homelessness: Unconventional Living

Middle school learners study statistics on homeless in America to create charts and graphs. Using a map of the United States, young scholars study the geography of homelessness at the same time.

On the Street Where You Live

This lesson for grades 7-12 lets participants explores real-world causes of homelessness. Learners create a household budget and then try to stick to it as unexpected expenses are thrown their way. It is certain to raise awareness and compassion for the impoverished.