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Homeless Children with Disabilities in America

  • Published: 2012-03-06 : Wendy Taormina-Weiss.
  • Synopsis: In America there are more than 1.3 million children who are homeless at some point every single year
Homelessness - Describes the condition of people without a regular dwelling. People who are homeless are perhaps unwilling but, more commonly, unable to acquire and maintain regular, safe, and adequate housing, or lack "fixed, regular, and adequate night-time residence." The legal definition of "homeless" varies from country to country, or among different entities or institutions in the same country or region.

Main Document

In America there are more than 1.3 million children who are homeless at some point every single year.

When you think of a person who is homeless, what images come to mind? For many people, images of adults who live in abject poverty, perhaps at a homeless shelter, eating at soup kitchens come to mind. Maybe images of these adults moving between various locations on the streets, or sleeping under bridges or overpasses, or perhaps at a temporary housing arrangement during the winter do. The facts; however, are rather startling; in America there are more than 1.3 million children who are homeless at some point every single year.

Among the children in America who experience homelessness:

  • 40% of children who are homeless are under 5 years old
  • Children who are homeless an average of 10 months at a time
  • 85% of families that are homeless are headed by single mothers
  • 25% of homeless children experience homelessness more than once
  • 39% of the homeless population is comprised of children younger than 18 years old

Causes of Homelessness

The majority of children become homeless due to their parents inability to find affordable housing. A number of additional factors contribute to homelessness among children. These factors include the following:

  • Substance abuse - 43% of fathers
  • Changes or cuts in public assistance
  • Mental illness - 31 percent of fathers
  • Jail or prison release - 32 percent of fathers
  • Low paying jobs or unemployment - 50% of fathers
  • Domestic violence - 63% of mothers are abused by fathers
  • Poverty - the child poverty rate of 18% is higher than that of any other age group

A lack of eligibility for welfare or other social supports, lack of employment, low wages, and/or unstable employment finds many families struggling to get the housing, food, and medical care they need. Many families lose their health insurance.

The Consequences of Homelessness For Children

The issues homeless children face start from birth and persist through their formative years. Children who are homeless are 4 times more likely to have a low birth weight and are more likely to require special care right after they are born. Children who are homeless are hungry more than twice as often as children who are not homeless; two-thirds of them worry they will not have enough to eat.

Living conditions that are unhealthy have the potential to weaken a child's resistance to diseases. Communal living conditions in shelters, to include shared food preparation and overcrowding, increase a child's risk of infection, disease, abuse. Homeless children also experience a number of other things such as:

  • Approximately 20% do not attend school
  • Homeless children are 4 times more likely to experience asthma
  • 50% of homeless children have not seen a dentist in over a year
  • 8% have been sexually abused - a rate 3 times that for other children
  • 8% have been physically abused - a rate 2 times that for other children
  • Homeless children are 6 times more likely to experience multiple health issues
  • 10 times the rate of poor dentition - one-third of homeless children have dental issues
  • Homeless children experience very high rates of acute illness - half suffer from 2 or more symptoms in a single month
  • Homeless children have twice as many ear infections, five times more stomach and diarrhea problems, and six times as many speech and stammering problems

Of the children who are homeless that do attend school, 21% repeat a grade due to frequent absences. Frequent moves find these children changing locations for education. In a single year, 40% of homeless children attend 2 different schools.

The Separation of Families

Unfortunately, the experience of homelessness frequently breaks up families. Things such as emergency shelter policies that deny access to fathers and older boys can separate families. Another cause of family break-ups related to homelessness can be the placement of a child into foster care. Children might also be left with relatives or friends so they can continue to attend their regular schools.

Children who are homeless experience a particularly high risk of being placed into foster care. 12% of children who are homeless are, compared to slightly over 1% of children who are not homeless. Placement of children into foster care has been identified as 1 of 2 childhood risk factors predicting family homelessness during adulthood.

Children and Young People with Disabilities and Homelessness

While accurate numbers are hard to come by, strong evidence suggests children and young people experience a disproportionately high evidence of forms of disabilities. For example; when compared to children who are not homeless, twice as many students with learning disabilities and three times the numbers of students with behavioral and emotional problems are homeless. As a whole, greater than 20% of children who are homeless and are between the ages of 3 and 6 experience emotional issues and rates of mental health issues as they grow into their teenage years. Less than one-third of these homeless children receive the mental health treatment they need. Half of the states in America report that children who are homeless also experience difficulties with receiving special education.

Telling the difference between the effects of being homeless from the ones presented by forms of disabilities can also present challenges. Behaviors that are indicative of forms of disabilities such as:

  • Learning disabilities
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Emotional disturbances
  • Speech or language impairments

Are many times similar to the ones demonstrated by children who are homeless. Conditions that are associated with homelessness such as inadequate health care, poor nutrition, and exposure to health hazards like lead poisoning, also have the potential to intensify a child's cognitive, physical, and emotional disabilities.

Due to the circumstances involved with homelessness it is often times difficult to differentiate between external factors and forms of disabilities the child may be experiencing. The challenge is exacerbated for students who are homeless and experiencing transient, unstable conditions. Efforts to provide care for children who are homeless and may be experiencing forms of disabilities are confused by these difficulties as well. Educators, health, and social workers find themselves struggling to pinpoint the causes of the things children who are homeless are experiencing.

Homeless populations are difficult to track - the precise numbers of children who are homeless, as well as the exact conditions they experience, might not be known. Yet if the general circumstances the 1.6 million children who are homeless in America experience at some point during a given year indicate the environment in which they are being raised - surely the experience of forms of disabilities can only add to the complexities they face, as well as their family members.

Children's Supplemental Security Income is a government program that may be able to help. Children who experience forms of disabilities might be eligible for this program, yet many homeless families remain unaware of the program.

One of the organizations working to end family homelessness is The National Center on Family Homelessness. The organization has proposed a series of steps aimed at improving the well-being of children who are homeless by addressing the issues they face. The Center's proposal includes:

  • Improving mental health services
  • Eliminating food insecurity and hunger
  • Supporting education, training, and work
  • Preventing unnecessary separation of families
  • Protecting the health of children who are homeless
  • Ensuring access to school and opportunities for success in school
  • Expanding violence prevention, treatment, and follow-up services
  • Promoting awareness of the numbers of children with disabilities who are homeless
  • Promoting awareness of the need of services by children with disabilities who are homeless

America is perhaps the wealthiest nation on planet Earth. Yet here; in America, there are well over a million children - many of whom experience forms of disabilities, who find themselves without a home, food, health care, or the opportunity to pursue education. The family members of these children struggle with the same conditions their children do, as well as facing under-employment, unemployment, low wages, family separation and more. Efforts to end homelessness among children and their family members must increase.


The McKinney-Vento Act at a Glance (PDF)

"Students in homeless situations must have access to the educational and other services they need to ensure that they have an opportunity to meet the same challenging state student academic achievement standards to which all students are held."

Children's Supplemental Security Income

"Your child younger than age 18 can qualify if he or she meets Social Security's definition of disability for children, and if his or her income and resources fall within the eligibility limits. The amount of the SSI payment is different from one state to another because some states add to the SSI payment."

"One in 45 children experience homelessness in America each year. That's over 1.6 million children. While homeless, they experience high rates of acute and chronic health problems. The constant barrage of stressful and traumatic experience also has profound effects on their development and ability to learn."

Related Information:

  1. Homelessness Among Women Veterans in America - The number of American women veterans who end up homeless or in poverty has almost doubled over the last ten years.
  2. Homelessness and Women Veterans - A Guide to Help Organizations - The Trauma-Informed Care for Women Veterans Experiencing Homelessness guide assists women veterans who are homeless to find work and re-integrate back into civilian life.
  3. Homeless American Veterans - Reduction in number of homeless veterans is promising but there are still veterans who have served America and struggle with homelessness unemployment and additional barriers.

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