January 15, 2006

Services to Homeless Students and Families: The McKinney-Vento Act and Its Implications for School Social Work Practice

By Jozefowicz-Simbeni, Debra M Hernandez; Israel, Nathaniel

In 1987 Congress authorized the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act to protect the rights of homeless students and to ensure that they receive the same quality and appropriate education that other students receive. This article summarizes key aspects of the 2001 reauthorization of the act, now known as the McKinney- Vento Act, outlines how school social workers can become more involved in the implementation, and offers suggestions for expansion of services and further evaluation of service provision effectiveness.

KEY WORDS: education; homelessness; McKinney-Vento; school social work practice; students

In recent years, research has shed light on the numerous educational barriers that homeless children and adolescents face, including lack of transportation, residency restrictions, lack of personal and school records, guardianship problems, and a lack of resources such as clothing and school supplies (Rafferty, 1995; U.S. Department of Education, 2001; Wall, 1996). Academically, homeless and runaway students face increased risk of school dropout, grade retention, low test scores, low grades, educational disabilities, and school behavior problems (Israel, Urberg, & Toro, 2001; Jozefowicz-Simbeni, 2003; Masten, Miliotis, Graham-Bermann, Ramirez, & Neemann, 1993; Ziesemer, Marcoux, & Marwell, 1994).

Such conditions do not develop in a vacuum, but are nested in a complex web of structural and environmental conditions. Homeless children experience emotional and behavioral disorders, physical health problems, and developmental delays. The problems are compounded by family circumstances of financial troubles, substance abuse, and mental and physical health issues. Furthermore, the nature of homelessness lends disturbingly well to parenting distress. All of these forces conspire to nearly eliminate the homeless child from public school education. Yet, burgeoning research has begun looking into the strengths of homeless students and has found such youths to possess numerous qualities that can lead to positive adaptation to adulthood, including being strong and resilient, as well as possessing spiritual values.

This article looks at the problem of homelessness in the United States, particularly for children and youths and presents the needs and strengths of homeless students. In addition, we explore key provisions of the 2001 McKinney-Vento Act (RL. 100-628), which was designed to address these concerns. Finally, we propose several pathways to greater involvement of school social workers in the implementation of the legislation as well as how they might augment the services they provide and evaluate the efficacy of their work.


Homelessness is an extreme condition of poverty that has been a long-standing concern of the social work profession. Although single adult men make up the majority of the homeless population, growing numbers of children, youths, single mothers, and poor or working poor families are experiencing homelessness in the United States (Swick, 2004; U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2001). In a study of homelessness among urban women of childbearing age, 11.4 percent of the 44,430 women in the study reported at least one episode of homelessness in a seven-year period surrounding the birth of their first child (Webb, Culhane, Metraux, Robbins, & Culhane, 2003). Mothers who were African American, who had less education, and who had more children were much more likely to experience homelessness than other groups. Indeed, more than half (53 percent) of African American women in the study who had dropped out of school and who had four or more children during the seven-year period assessed (either three years before the birth of their first child or within the four years of the birth of their first child) reported being homeless during that period. The results bode poorly for the risk of homelessness of young urban children, particularly African American children.

Older children suffer homelessness in great numbers as well. One recent estimate indicated that more than 900,000 children and youths experience homelessness in a given year (U.S. Department of Education,2001). In a national survey on the annual preva- ( lence of homelessness among youths ages 12 to 17, Ringwalt, Greene, Robertson, & McPheeters (1998) estimated youth homelessness (not including doubling-up with friends or extended family members) at nearly 8 percent. Although boys were more likely than girls to be homeless, they found no other differences in the prevalence of youth homelessness based on race, poverty status, family structure, or region of the country. These findings suggest that youth homelessness is not just a concern for urban, poor youths, but also a broader concern that merits national attention (Ringwalt et al.).

Although prevalence estimates are an empirical indicator of the scope of homelessness, homeless children and youths are likely undercounted and underidentified, in part, because shelters may be inaccessible to them, they are turned away from shelters, or they avoid shelters and other services because of the stigma (Aron & Fitchen, 1996; Swick, 2004; U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2001, 2003). The size of the homeless population, coupled with the fact that severe poverty and homelessness pose significant risks to child development, indicates that homelessness is a pressing social concern for children, youths, and families (Masten et al., 1997; Schmitz, Wagner, & Menke, 2001). Ensuring that homeless children and youths receive an education on par with their peers is necessary in addressing the needs of homeless people in the United States.


Students and their families end up homeless for numerous reasons. Structural factors, such as poverty, lack of affordable housing, and eviction can lead to sudden or prolonged bouts of homelessness (Reganick, 1997). In addition, personal or relationship factors, such as substance abuse, mental health difficulties, abuse and neglect, and family conflict and violence are also reasons that children, youths, and families may find themselves without a place to stay (Reganick; Swick, 2004). The stresses and strains associated with poverty, frequent mobility, and homelessness relate consistently to health, emotional, behavioral, and academic difficulties among homeless students (Hart-Shegos & Associates, Inc., 1999; Masten et al., 1993; Masten et al., 1997; Reganick).

Reganick (1997) categorized the struggles that homeless children and youths face into the following five areas: (1) physical conditions and health problems that result from environmental factors such as poor nutrition, (2) unacceptable behaviors resulting from coping and survival strategies, (3) inadequate social skills and insecurities stemming from frequent moves and self- consciousness about being homeless and lacking resources, (4) psychological trauma resulting from multiple stressors that contributes to negative mental health, and (5) developmental delays due to a lack of stimulating environmental conditions.

Emotional and Behavioral Issues

Homeless children and youths often display higher levels of emotional and behavioral disorders than the general population. They are more likely to experience stress, depression, anxiety, worries, a sense of isolation, withdrawal, aggression, antisocial behavior, and substance use (Hart-Shegos & Associates, Inc., 1999; Masten et al., 1993; Schmitz et al., 2001). For instance, Masten and colleagues (1993) found that homeless children had levels of behavior problems above national norms. They were also more likely to be exposed to recent stressful events and school and friendship disruption than matched, nonhomeless peers. Behavioral problems in both samples were related to parental distress, cumulative risk, and recent stressful events, suggesting that there are significant mediators of emotional and behavioral outcomes for homeless and other low-income students.

Homeless children and youths can also experience shame, self- consciousness, and insecurity about being without a home (Reganick, 1997; Schmitz et al., 2001). These emotional and behavioral problems, as well as negative self-attitudes about being homeless, can lead to academic problems at school.

Academic Achievement

Homeless students are more likely to experience low achievement test scores, poor grades, educational disability, school behavior problems, grade retention, truancy, and school dropout (Israel, Urberg, & Toro, 2001; Jozefowicz-Simbeni, 2003; Mastenetal., 1993; Ziesemer et al., 1994). Ziesemer and colleagues found that homeless students and matched low-income mobile students both have higher levels of academic difficulties compared with other normative samples.This finding suggests that, although homeless students face barriers to educational access and academic success and have unique challenges as a result of not having a home, poverty and resultant high mobility als\o take their toll on students.Yet homeless students, compared with poor students who live at home, are at greater risk of school mobility and related educational challenges (Masten et al., 1993).

Family-Related Challenges

Homelessness is not only associated with child difficulties, but parent and family difficulties as well. Although some studies report lower substance use and mental health disorders among homeless women with children compared with other adult homeless populations, homeless parents are more likely to be single women who have a substance abuse problem, mental health disorder, or physical health problem, and they are less likely than other mothers to receive services (Hart-Shegos & Associates, Inc., 1999).The reality of homelessness can also mean more parental distress, an undermining of views of parents and the parental role, less responsiveness to child needs, and a splintering of the family unit (Reganick, 1997; Schmitz et al., 2001). Thus, several risks and barriers encountered by homeless students can be linked to the struggles of their parents and to family functioning.

Strengths of Homeless Children and Their Families

Finally, although homeless students and families display many struggles and needs, it is important to attend to and emphasize their strengths. Despite the numerous stressors homeless youths face, research has identified significant strengths in these children (Israel & Jozefowicz-Simbeni, 2004; Schmitz et al., 2001). In an interview study of homeless and runaway youths, Lindsey and colleagues (2000) found that the ability to change attitudes and behaviors; personal characteristics, such as being strong; and reliance on spirituality were strengths that contributed to a constructive transition to adulthood for this group.

In response to the needs of homeless children and their families, numerous social services and educational policies have marshaled resources to stem the tide against poor academic achievement and child development, as well as poverty. One piece of legislation, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, has been hailed as a landmark law that explicitly addresses the needs and concerns of homeless students and their families.


In 1987 the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act (P.L. 100- 77) was first authorized to protect the rights of homeless students and to ensure that they receive the same quality and appropriate public school education that nonhomeless students receive by addressing some of the barriers homeless children and adolescents face when enrolling and succeeding in school (U.S. Department of Education, 2004).The act also mandated the designation of a state coordinator whose purpose was to promote educational access for homeless students. In 1990 and again in 1994, the law was amended to expand services to preschool-age children and other student groups, decrease noncompliance, and provide incentives for compliance (Markward & Biros, 2001). Incentives included the allocation of funding to State Educational Agencies (SEAs) for distribution to Local Educational Agencies (LEAs) through granting mechanisms. Such funding not only stimulated the removal of enrollment barriers, but also increased focus on programming and community collaborations for improved academic success of homeless students (Markward & Biros).

In 2001 the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act was reauthorized as a part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (P.L. 107-110).The reauthorized act further clarified the definition of who should be considered homeless. Homeless students include those who do not have a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence and find themselves in any of the following situations:

* waiting for a foster care placement or being abandoned in a hospital

* staying in a shelter, abandoned building, or motel

* staying at a campground or inadequate trailer park

* living out of a car or in a bus or train station

* staying with friends or relatives as a result of no housing

* staying in any public or private space not designed for or used as a regular sleeping place for human beings

* staying in any of the described locations because they are from migratory families (U.S. Department of Education, 2004).

It is important to note that McKinney-Vento included reference to preschool-age children, another group of homeless students that are often more difficult to identify and pull into the mainstream educational system. Also, the law refers to special populations of homeless students that may have unique needs, such as those living in domestic violence shelters (U.S. Department of Education, 2004).

McKinney-Vento also increased the scope of policies and potential services to assist homeless students in gaining access to and succeeding in their education. There are explicit prohibitions against segregating students into a separate program or school solely on the basis of homelessness, a presumption of school of origin as the placement in the best interests of the student unless otherwise indicated by the student or family, an immediate and continued enrollment in school of choice regardless of pending disputes, a required designation of a liaison for every LEA, and transportation to and from school of choice (U.S. Department of Education, 2004).

Two main ideas pervade the act. First, school mobility should be minimized to mitigate school disruption and its effect on academic success. Federal guidelines for implementing McKinney-Vento apply a "One Child, One School, One Year" policy and spell out requirements regarding enrollment, transportation, and dispute resolution that include immediate enrollment in school without proof of residency, school records, or immunization records; choice between school attended before loss of housing, last school enrolled, or school affiliated with present living arrangement; and a process for timely dispute resolution (National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, 2002). second, McKinney-Vento indicates that services should be provided in a way that allows homeless children to remain in the mainstream setting with their peers to avoid being ostracized, segregated, and harassed (U.S. Department of Education, 2004).

States receive a minimum allotment of McKinney-Vento funding, which was $150,000 in 2003 (U.S. Department of Education, 2004). Grants are given to all states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico depending on the amount of Title I funds they receive. Grants also are given to the outlying areas including the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Funds also go to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (U.S. Department of Education, 2004). States with a minimum allotment can spend 50 percent of the funds on state-level activities performed by the state Office of Coordinator for Education of Homeless Children and Youth. States with more than the minimum allotment must award 75 percent of their federal dollars to LEAs through competitive grants.


Although awareness, implementation, and funding of the McKinney- Vento Act have been expanding, evidence suggests that barriers to its implementation still exist (U.S. Department of Education, 2001). In a 2000 Congressional report based on a survey of state coordinators, respondents indicated that difficulty identifying homeless students, lack of awareness of the needs of homeless students and families, staff turnover, high staff to student ratios, and limited funding were the primary barriers to implementing the act at that time. There is also evidence that low levels of awareness of the act more generally remain problematic. In a study of homeless liaisons in one county in Illinois.Thompson and Davis (2003) found that significant numbers of liaisons were not aware that they were designated as homeless liaisons by their LEAs, and they had little or no knowledge of the McKinney-Vento Act. Such ignorance could reflect school districts' own lack of knowledge or unwillingness to devote resources to training and outreach. A lack of training and outreach to parents, however, could be viewed as passive ways to deny services to these students and families.

With the exception of some exemplary programs, these barriers mean that homeless students and families continue to be underidentified and underserved, and a program of services to meet their needs is often nonexistent, unrecognized, or inadequate. Increasing awareness of the act, identifying and tracking homeless students, mainstreaming and reducing the negative effect of mobility, and developing and coordinating services to homeless students and their families all require individuals, including the mandated officials and social workers who can educate and prompt school officials to apprehend and comply with the law.

State Coordinators

McKinney-Vento requires each state to have an Office of Coordinator for Education of Homeless Children with a state coordinator whose job is to develop and carry out the state's McKinney-Vento plan and collect information on the problems faced by homeless students and the ability of programs to address the needs of these students. The coordinator is also responsible for creating and coordinating activities and comprehensive services (including health and social services) for homeless students and families, partly through linking the shelters, schools, and community organizations that serve these students and families. Coordinators are also expected to provide support and technical assistance to LEAs and local liaisons through developed documents.Web sites, newsletters, and other media to increase knowledge, compliance, and activities associated with the McKinney-Vento Act. Finally, state coordinators prepare reports to the U.S. Department of Education about the status of meeting the needs of homeless students as needed (For more information on state \coordinator activities, see Education for Homeless Children andYouth Program: Non-Regulatory Guidance,U.S. Department of Education, 2004).

LEA Liaisons

Each LEA (or school district) must designate a homeless liaison who is responsible for ensuring the smooth matriculation into school and associated school programs that homeless students require, as well as facilitating the education of school personnel and parents regarding the rights guaranteed under the McKinney-Vento Act. The liaison may act as an intermediary between parents and students and the requirements, or felt requirements, of schools and school districts in meeting those needs. As intermediaries, local liaisons may need to assist in document procurement and delivery, dispute resolution, school enrollment, and ongoing education so that all parties understand the law and receive or deliver services. Liaisons can be involved in securing material needs such as food and clothing, as well as transportation to and from schools.They can also be stabilizing forces in homeless students' and families' lives through centralized contact and the indirect and direct provision of services.

A Role for School Social Workers

The role and functions of homeless liaisons are so consonant with the role and functions of social work, it is no surprise that school social workers have been recruited explicitly or implicitly into these roles. For instance, homeless liaisons need to be advocates for homeless children and families, need to attain resources for these students and families, and need to connect with community organizations and agencies on behalf of these students and families. School social workers often do this for atrisk and special needs students more generally, and have likely been doing so for homeless students more specifically.

Unfortunately, school social workers' involvement with homeless students and families, and their positions as homeless liaisons remain largely anecdotal. There is no formal documented accounting of the level of involvement school social -workers have had or are having with this population. As a result, we are only beginning to understand the influence of McKinney-Vento Act on the school social work profession. Markward and Biros (2001) wrote about the implementation of the 1987 act and implications for school social work practice. Recommendations for school social workers then included advocating for adequate housing and funding, identifying preschool and special needs homeless students and linking them to educational programs and services, increasing parental involvement, linking families to services, providing direct services, and evaluating the effectiveness of services (Markward & Biros). Despite such recommendations and the strengthening of the act in 2001, awareness and social -workers' position in implementation of McKinney-Vento continue to be a challenge.

Overcoming Barriers

To increase knowledge and compliance, schools need to identify local liaisons, educate them about their function and roles, and advocate for training and real support for these individuals.To overcome barriers to appropriate service delivery and facilitate parental involvement, key roles homeless liaisons and school social workers can play are those of parent and staff educator and system advocate.They can educate and sensitize school staff, other families and students, and community agency workers (for example, shelter staff, protective service workers) to the needs and rights of homeless children and families. Concerted awareness-raising efforts would help increase compliance with McKinney-Vento requirements, as well as decrease stereotyping and other negative attitudes toward homeless students and families that impede children's and adolescents' emotional and academic growth (Reganick, 1997). Furthermore, a strengths-based approach that emphasizes homeless mothers' positive views of their children (Israel& JozefowiczSimbeni, 2004) and homeless students' high aspirations and positive views of themselves (Reganick) could lead to more constructive views, supports, and service provision for this population.

Because of a lack of knowledge and implementation surrounding the McKinney-Vento Act, programs designed to increase knowledge and compliance continue to emerge and expand,and public awareness of such programs is beginning to grow. For instance, an article that appeared in the Chicago Tribune described several programs for homeless students that are run by the Regional Education Office and the Illinois Coalition to end Homelessness (Mastony, 2003). One program involves four social workers who serve as centralized contacts to address student enrollment and problems that homeless students and families face. They also perform outreach to schools and shelters, educate schools about the act, and attempt to identify local liaisons for each local school district (Mastony).

In an attempt to develop and evaluate services to homeless students and families in an urban, high poverty district in Michigan, a quantitative and qualitative needs assessment was conducted with 50 elementary students and their mothers staying in homeless shelters (Israel, Toro, & Jozefowicz-Simbeni, 2003). Preliminary analyses of interview data revealed that these children were highly mobile (moving an average of four times in the past 12 months) and rarely were able to obtain services the law designates. Possibly as a result of this, parents perceived schools as being inadequately prepared to deal with their needs or their children's needs. However, a strength of the mothers was that they also stated a willingness to become and to stay involved with their children's education. School social workers could build on such strengths by linking parents with the resources necessary to facilitate their involvement in their child's education.

Based on the findings, key recommendations to the district included hiring sufficient staff to effectively implement all aspects of the district's Education of Homeless Student Plan, developing a system to identify and track homeless students and families, providing in-service training to educate staffabout the McKinney-Vento Act, and conducting outreach efforts to local shelters to provide information to homeless students and families regarding the act and their rights (Israel et al., 2003). In addition, the study made recommendations regarding expanded school and social services to improve educational access and the academic success of homeless students from preschool through high school. Key recommendations in such reports have broad applicability and can be used not only to inform local program efforts, but also to inform efforts in other districts and states more generally. Wider dissemination of program descriptions and evaluations, therefore, should be attempted, and school social workers can be instrumental in writing and publishing such reports. In addition to increasing knowledge, staffing, and outreach to shelters, McKinney-Vento and reports on McKinney-Vento also suggest the importance of linking homeless students and families to existing services and school programs, including programs such as the free and reduced lunch program, afterschool programs, tutoring, special education,Title I, and adult and vocational education (U.S. Department of Education, 2001). One important area in need of more attention is the underrepresentation of homeless preschoolers in early education programs (U.S. Department of Education, 2001). Early intervention and education is critical for both remediation of early childhood delays and the promotion of school readiness, particularly for poor preschoolers (McLoyd,2000). Early childhood programs can serve as stable forces in the lives of homeless preschoolers who experience homelessness (Douglass, 1996). Putting families of preschoolers in contact with Even Start and Head Start programs is needed, as well as identifying and developing other options for homeless preschool- age children.

In addition to linking students and families with educational programs, liaisons and school social workers can connect students and families with other services and community agencies. As stated, studies have indicated significant mental health and substance abuse problems for homeless students and their parents. These children and families may also have contact with the public assistance, child welfare, and juvenile justice systems. Thus, school social workers need to be knowledgeable about these systems and how children and families can obtain the appropriate services.

Finally, school social workers can engage not only in risk reduction, but also in resource building (Jozefowicz-Simbeni & Allen- Meares, 2002) for homeless students, families, and the communities and schools they serve.This can occur through persistent outreach, community involvement, and grant-writing activities. Resources can include food, clothing, school uniforms, bus tickets, backpacks, books, school supplies, computers, personal hygiene items, and of course, housing.


School social workers have an opportunity to make a significant impact in the lives of homeless school children and youths. The McKinney-Vento Act spells out numerous avenues for involvement that are compatible with social work values, roles, and functions.These include the identification and tracking of homeless students, and the development and implementation of a broad range of interventions and services designed to increase educational access and success for these children and adolescents.

To gain a clearer understanding of the significance of the McKinney-Vento Act to homeless students and families, its implications for school social work practice, and whether its implementation has been successful, more research is needed to determine how many homeless students and families are being served, what their needs are, what types of services are b\eing provided to them, and how effective service provision has been in meeting their needs. Consistent with current models of social work practice, there is a need to identify best practices in this area. In addition, identification of ways in which these efforts can be folded into other efforts to track highly mobile and high-risk children is also needed. Ideally, efforts to address the unique needs of homeless students and families should become part of a comprehensive and seamless service delivery system.This legislation offers a unique opportunity to encourage local human services, community, and business organizations to band together to help a targeted group of individuals who are undeniably in need. It is also an opportunity to develop community awareness of the needs of economically disempowered families and to encourage communities to develop services that rely on integrated service delivery models, such as full-service schools or school-linked services (for exampleJozefowicz-Simbeni & Allen-Meares, 2002). The importance of this legislation to develop and assess the effects of implementing a coordinated system of care has implications for homeless students in particular, and all at-risk students more broadly.


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Debra M. Hernandez Jozefowicz-Simbeni, PhD, is assistant professor, School of Social Work, Wayne State University, 4756 Cass Avenue, Thompson Home, Room 314, Detroit, MI 48202; e-mail: debj- [email protected] Nathaniel Israel, MA, is Visiting Assistant in Research, Department of Child & Family Studies, Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute, University of South Florida, Tampa.

Accepted June 7, 2005

Copyright National Association of Social Workers, Incorporated Jan 2006