This paper provides an update on the research, policy, laws, and funding for programs and services for children who are homeless in the United States. Education, health, and mental health for homeless children are examined. “Homeless children” here refers to minor children accompanying their parent(s)/guardian(s) during a homeless episode. Unaccompanied youth who are homeless are intentionally excluded in this paper. Their issues, needs, and the systems responsible for responding are different and, thus, are outside the purview of this paper.
Children and their families who become homeless enter this status from a much larger number of at-risk families with very limited incomes. Because family homelessness is a temporary state and not a permanent condition, almost all homeless families will eventually be re-housed and rejoin this larger group of housed families. An episode of homelessness is an adversity encountered by many children living in low-income neighborhoods. Children who become homeless are at risk for, or have already faced, other major issues, such as exposure to family and community violence, which can impact children regardless of whether they are living in shelter or in permanent housing. Because of the fluid nature of family homelessness, it is difficult to intervene over the long-term with homeless children without looking to settings, such as schools, that children will be in regardless of whether they are presently living in shelter or in permanent housing. The recent economic downturn and housing foreclosure crisis also impacts homelessness.
The federal response to child homelessness has included enacting laws that seek to protect the rights of these children, such as those ensuring their inclusion in the education system. This is achieved through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act as reauthorized in the No Child Left Behind legislation. But there are many other federal, state, and local programs and funding streams in place to assist homeless children. These programs cover direct services to children, such as health care, nutrition, and transportation, and programs to assist their families, such as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) programs (e.g., Section 8 and emergency housing).