Steps to Help Homeless Students and Parents

Dion Ginanto

The war against homelessness has been and will continue to be a serious concern for every nation. Almost every country in this planet experiences the issue of homelessness. In the United States of America for example, there were 1.5 million of sheltered homeless people (during a one-year period) in 2011. Of this number, 21.1 % were under the age of 18. The great recession in this country has forced many citizens to experience homelessness for the first time. The Youtube video entitled A Homeless Mother Struggles to Get Ahead shows an example who became homeless. Debbie and Jasmine’s life is one out of million people who need to be helped. One urgent need that should be addressed is Jasmine’s education. Whatever the reason, Jasmine should enroll in school. This is because school can provide opportunities for homeless children and youth to obtain the skills they need to escape poverty and avoid homelessness as adults (Duffied & Lovell, 2008 in Murphy& Tobin, 2011). As educators, we need to be able to give some effective remedies for homeless families. This article discusses some approaches to help the homeless like Debbie and Jasmine.

What is Homelessness?

According to the McKinney Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 2001 in Cooper (2013) states, “Homeless children and youth are individuals who lacked a fixed regular and adequate night time residence. This includes those who are sharing housing with other persons, living in hotel/motels, trailer parks or camping ground, cars, and living in shelters” (p. 4-5). In line with this, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines a homeless person as “An individual who resided in a shelter or place not meant for human habitation and who is exiting an institution where he or she temporarily resided” (National Health Care for the Homeless Council, 2013). It is clear that homelessness is a situation where a person does not have a place to reside as a result of a bad condition. This includes those who live in motels like Debbie and Jasmine.

Debbie and Jasmine on Youtube

            A 2:53 video clip from Youtube depicts a single mother with her daughter who experience homelessness for their first time due to family estrangement. Debbie is a 35 years old mother who stays in a motel with her 7 year-old daughter, Jasmine. Debbie does not have a house nor a car. She works at a local dry cleaner. She needs to pay $250 for the motel every week. She is really sad because she used to be independent, however, she ends up in a bad situation in which she needs help. She wants to make sure that her daughter can live as other children, including getting an education.

Step to Accommodate Homeless Students

            Just imagine that Debbie came to school principal to enroll her daughter. What should he or she does to help both Debbie and Jasmine to assure that Debbie will get the same attention and services as other students? There are some steps and approaches that a school principal can apply to help homeless students and/or parents:

  1. 1.     Barrier Removal

To help Debbie enroll in the school, the principal should be able to understand her condition, and therefore facilitate her school enrollment.  Tower (1992) in Murphy and Tobin (2011) wrote, “the goal with homeless students should be to remove as many barriers as possible to their learning” (p. 219). There are some barriers homeless students will find in schools: residency, guardianship, immunization, and school records (Murphy and Tobin, 2011). Due to the situation, some documentation, which is usually required by administrators at schools, should be waived in order to give a place for a student like Jasmine to study. The McKinney-Vento act is the major asset for homeless students, since it exempts students from many documents required (Murphy and Tobin, 2011). Students’ barriers include transportation. Therefore, a school principal should be able to work together with the community and the local government to provide a free ride for homeless students.

  1. 2.     Basic Needs Fulfillment

Rafferty (1995) in Murphy and Tobin (2011) asserted that “the lack of such resources (school clothes and supplies) has been identified as an ongoing and major barrier to school attendance for homeless students nationwide” (p. 235). Therefore, National Center for Homeless Education (2013) in Cooper (2013) gives some recommendations regarding the basic needs of a student like Jasmine: a) provide access to school shower and laundry facilities; b) provide students with a secure place to store personal belongings; and c) notify school nutrition services; homeless students are automatically eligible for free meals and do not need to follow the normal enrollment process. The Educational Leadership Constituent Council (ELCC) standards number 1.5, mandated school principals to promote community involvement in their school vision (Whitehead, Boschee, and Decker, 2013). Thus, in addressing Jasmine’s needs such as clothing, food, shelter, medical care, school supplies, etc., a school principal should be able to engage every element of community both from inside and outside the school.

  1. 3.     Creating Caring Adults

Homeless students need extra attention. This is because some of them received little attention from their parents. In addition, there are a lot of cases in which the homeless students do not focus on their studies; rather they focus much on how to help their parents and even how they will find a place to sleep. Therefore, a school principal should help homeless students like Jasmine by creating caring adults in the building. Caring adults consist of three dimensions: a) liaisons, someone whose assignment is to worry about and help structure the success of the homeless school population; b) teachers, someone who helps homeless students when they do not have a secure place to live, by being a compassionate advocate; c) mentors, someone who helps homeless students feel a sense of acceptance at school (Murphy and Tobin, 2011).

  1. 4.     Creating an Effective Instructional Program

The National Center for Homeless Education (2013) in Cooper (2013) identifies some strategies to create an effective instructional program for homeless students: a) implement policies to assist with accumulating credits toward graduation such as chunking credits, implementing mastery-based learning, providing partial credit for completed coursework; b) provide flexibility with school assignments, including deadlines and needed supplies; and d. consider alternative education programs that allow flexible school hours, such as computer-based learning or online education. Murphy and Tobin (2011) suggested individualized instruction and cooperative learning platform, to create a more effective instructional program for homeless students. Individualized instruction is considered important for the student with high mobility. Meanwhile, cooperative learning can create an atmosphere of togetherness for students with all different backgrounds, which eventually creates a sense of respect.

  1. 5.     Parental Involvement

“The surest way to support homeless children’s education is to support their parents” (Nunez & Collignon, 2000 in Murphy and Tobin, 2011). In the video, Debbie explains to us that she is really concerned about her daughter’s education. She is willing to be involved with school in order to support Jasmine. Therefore, a school principal needs to really appreciate to the homeless parents who are supportive and encourage those who are not really engaged. Murphy and Tobin (2011) suggest three approaches to engage parents: a) deepened communication, b) develop support networks (to share works with other homeless parents), and c) establish the role of homeless parent advocates or liaisons. When homeless parents are being valued as other normal parents, they will feel they belong to the school family.

  1. 6.     Increasing Awareness about Homelessness

Not all people in the school building as well as in the community are aware of the social problems that create homelessness. As a result, they tend to ignore students and parents who are homeless. If only the community is aware and are willing to help, Debbie’s family and other homeless families will not need to worry about housing nor education. Williams & Korinek, 2000 in Murphy and Tobin, 2011) wrote “A well-developed, ongoing, multidimensional program of staff development experiences to facilitate within-school and within-district awareness, understanding, and capability to respond to identified needs of homeless students characterizes effective school programs serving these students” (p. 230). National Center for Homeless Education (2013) in Cooper (2013) identified two strategies for a principal: a) become familiar with state laws related to the reporting of suspected abuse or neglect or a suspected runaway; and b) become familiar with eligibility criteria for local social services and housing programs; be ready to refer youth when services are needed.

Prioritization of Strategies

            Given all the steps above, a school principal should prioritize the first step in addressing homelessness: barrier removal. The urgent step that needs to be undertaken by every principal is to make sure that all homeless people under 18 are enrolled in school. Therefore, for the case of Jasmine and Debbie, the administrator and the principal should make the requirement for documentation simpler. Above all, distributed leadership should be implemented to remove barriers for homeless students. As a community leader, a school principal should engage the community, teachers, parents, administrators, non-governmental organizations, as well as the government to be supportive to homeless families.

Finally, principals need to make sure that the needs of both parents and students of homeless families are met. By applying these six steps, the educational problems of homeless families can be remedied. By helping homeless students succeed in their education, we can prevent homelessness in the future.



Cooper, Kristy. (2013). Students who are homeless (Chapter C). A class presentation. Michigan: Michigan State University.


Murphy, J. & Tobin, K. (2011). Homelessness comes to school. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin. Chapter 6: The legal framework and ensuring success, and Chapter 7: Ensuring success.


National Health Care for the Homeless Council. (2013). What is the official definition of homelessness? Retrieved from:


Whitehead, B., Bjoschee, F., Decker, R., (2013). The principal: Leadership for a global society; Los Angeles CA., Sage.