There’s no place like home. For children, it’s not just a notable quote: it’s an imperative.
There’s an ongoing crisis of homelessness in the United States, and it’s taking a toll on our youngest and most vulnerable neighbors. Without a stable, healthy home environment, many children will experience significant gaps in education that can prevent them from achieving success in our society.
Extended periods of hunger and homelessness are also associated with long-lasting damage to a child’s wellbeing. The resulting social disadvantages can further compound the problem, making it impossible for many children to thrive later in life.
How Homelessness Impacts Education
In addition to the obvious hardships caused by homelessness, there are other, less obvious ways it impacts young people. As we mentioned already, poverty and homelessness can deeply affect the trajectory of a child’s formative years.
The spike in homelessness is just one symptom of this greater issue that sets our children at a national disadvantage. Homelessness can:
- Impact students’ ability to learn and achieve
- Make it hard to gain an education, which makes it hard to escape poverty
- Perpetuate the cycle of poverty
- Cause protracted hunger and stress, leading to mental health issues and behavioral problems
It is during the developmental stages of life that human beings are most susceptible to learning and influence. Therefore, it is perhaps more important than ever to ensure we’re giving these kids the best shot we can. Addressing these problems now can greatly improve the overall economic stability of whole neighborhoods, and even, our country at large.
What is Causing the Homeless Crisis?
Poverty and homelessness are on the rise, and it’s a trend that was underway for years before the Covid-19 outbreak. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, there are many reasons why this is happening, but some of the leading issues identified include:
- Reduction of federal funding for housing.
- Luxury units represent a growing share of new construction, rather than affordable units.
- Wages not keeping pace with rents.
This is an emergency on a variety of levels. However, it’s doubly concerning for students.
The CDF found that more than 1.5 million public school kids in the United States lacked permanent housing during the 2017-2018 school year. This problem is getting even worse as a result of COVID-19. The New York Times estimates that there were around 580,000 people living on the streets or in shelters in 2020. That number grew by 2.2% in 2021, without even accounting for the number of people displaced by the virus.
For children and young adults, this isn’t just a crisis, it’s a tragedy. Childhood and adolescence are formative years. Without a proper foundation for success, many more kids can slip through the cracks than ever before.
What Teachers Can Do to Help
In some cases, teachers and school faculty are the only people in a child’s life, who may be able to have a positive impact on their wellbeing. Some educators spend more time with a child during the day than their parents. As a result, teachers are uniquely placed to spot the indicators of stress or other problems resulting from housing instability.
Keep the McKinney-Vento Act in mind. As a teacher, you can be a valuable ally to a child in need. Some strategies for providing support include:
- Connect with your local McKinney-Vento liaison: Depending on your district, a McKinney-Vento liaison may be available to help you prepare for how best to approach students struggling with homelsseness.
- Make yourself available to students: Establishing relationships with withdrawn and struggling children can be crucial. If a struggling child recognizes you as a person they can come to when they’re in trouble, that alone could have an enormous impact.
- Don’t stigmatize poverty: Kids can be bullies. Don’t tolerate language that belittles the plights of people struggling with income and housing instability. Instead, encourage your students to be considerate of others whenever possible.
- Make sure basic needs are met: If you know a student isn’t receiving three meals a day, you can proactively ensure they are being fed while at school. Also, teachers can help children gain access to clothing and basic hygiene supplies. Ask your MV liaison about available assistance for students.
- Provide structure: Children require routine. This is something you can influence directly by establishing effective rules and boundaries that can help foster a sense of normalcy and stability. This could be as simple as planning assignments that can be completed in class.
- Reach out to caregivers: It can be uncomfortable to put yourself in the middle of family emergencies. As a teacher, though, your position is to create a positive environment for education for every student. Reaching out to parents to strategize how best to provide that education can make a large difference in stabilizing that child’s life.
- Take care of yourself: As an educator, you care deeply for your students. Trying to help students with issues of housing and food insecurity can take a toll on your mental health. This will, in turn, impact your ability to help those students. So, remember to manage your own health and mental wellbeing.
The struggle against poverty is a long-term battle, and teachers are on the front lines. While it’s a sorry state of affairs…it’s the truth. And, unfortunately, there’s no clear solution appearing on the horizon.
Educators need all the resources they can get to help manage this crisis. It’s a matter that we, as a nation, literally can’t afford to ignore any longer.