While estimating the homeless population is difficult, about 1.1 million students in the U.S. were homeless at the start of the the 2010-2011 school year. Children not enrolled in school, although their numbers are less easily measured, push the total number of homeless children and youth significantly higher.
Children who lack a stable home are vulnerable to a number of adverse outcomes. Some threats, such as poverty and hunger, may precede episodes of homelessness; others stem directly from living without a home. Homeless children are more likely than other children to have moderate to severe acute and chronic health problems, and less access to medical and dental care.1 Symptoms of asthma, hyperactivity/inattention, and behavior problem are more prevalent among this group.2,3 Children without stable homes are more than twice as likely as others to repeat a school grade, be expelled or suspended, or drop out of high school. A quarter or more of homeless children have witnessed violence, and more than half have problems with anxiety and depression.4 Family homelessness may result in children’s separation from their parents—either because children are formally placed in foster care, or because parents leave children in the care of relatives and friends.
“Unaccompanied youth” are children and youth who are homeless and on their own—that is, not living with their families. This group includes “runaway” youth, youth whose parents encouraged them to leave or locked them out of their home, and independent youth from families where irreconcilable conflicts or loss of contact have made it impossible for them to return home. Many are victims of abuse; many spent time in foster care as children.5 Due to the challenges in identifying them, unaccompanied youth are often excluded from estimates of the homeless population.
A number of factors contribute to homelessness among children and youth. In surveys of city officials, the most frequently cited reasons for family homelessness are a lack of affordable housing, poverty, and domestic violence; for unaccompanied youth, the chief factors cited are mental illness, substance abuse, and lack of affordable housing.6
Almost by definition, homeless children and youth are difficult to count, as their living situations frequently change. Attempts are made to estimate the extent of the homeless problem in the United States, using various methods, but all have their limitations. For this report, we use data that count children who are homeless and enrolled in school, and also data on homeless children who are served by formal shelters (either short- or long-term) over the course of a year, some of whom are also in school. Because of the different methods used make the counts, the two measurements are not comparable.
Data reported here come from two primary sources: school districts, which are required to report on the number of homeless students they serve, and censuses of homeless shelters and temporary housing conducted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In school year 2010-11, with 93 percent of school districts reporting, there were 1.1 million students who were homeless at the beginning of the year. While this is nearly twice as many as in school year 2004-05 (590,000), some of this increase may be due to improved reporting, as only 65 percent of school districts reported data in that year. However, there is good reason to believe that a least some of the increase reflects real growth in this population; in school year 2007-08, with 91 percent of school districts reporting, there were 795,000 students who were homeless, a difference of 35 percent from 2010-11. (Figure 1) A smaller peak in 2005 may be due to families displaced by the unusually destructive hurricane season in late summer/early fall of that year.7
Differences by Living Situation
In school year 2010-11, the majority (72 percent) of homeless students were “doubling up” with other families. One-sixth (18 percent) were staying in shelters, five percent were in hotels/motels, and five percent were “unsheltered.” (Appendix 1)
Between school year 2004-05 and school year 2010-11, the proportion of homeless students who were “doubled up” increased by 20 percent, from 60 to 72 percent, and the proportion who were unsheltered increased by 35 percent, from four percent. The proportion of homeless students who were living in hotels or motels decreased by 32 percent, from eight percent, and the proportion who were staying in shelters decreased by 38 percent, from 28 to 18 percent. (Figure 1)
Differences by Race and Hispanic Origin8
Black families are disproportionately represented among homeless families with children. In 2010, approximately 39 percent of sheltered homeless families with children were black, although black families made up just 14 percent of U.S. families with children. Conversely, white families with children were under-represented among homeless children in families: while they comprised 60 percent of all families with children, whites accounted for 29 percent of sheltered homeless families. Similarly, while Hispanics comprise19 percent of families with children, and more than 30 percent of those in poverty, they make up 22 percent of the sheltered homeless population. American Indians, Pacific Islanders, and those with multiple races are overrepresented in the homeless population, while Asians are underrepresented. (Figure 2)
Differences by Age
In 2010, 11 percent of homeless children who spent time in shelters were under the age of one year, 41 percent between one and five, 31 percent between six and twelve, and 16 percent between 13 and 17. Among unaccompanied youth, as one would expect, a large majority (71 percent) were between the ages of 13 and 17. However, 12 percent were between the ages of six and 12, and 16 percent were younger than six. Younger unaccompanied children are likely living with a parent or other relative younger than 18 years of age. (Figure 3)
Differences by Sex
In 2010, among unaccompanied youth in shelters, 52 percent were male. While this is consistent with the pattern in 2009, females were the majority of unaccompanied youth in 2006 through 2008. A higher number of unaccompanied children under the age of six were also present during those years, perhaps reflecting the prevalence of young women caring for a young child or other relative. (Appendix 2)
State and Local Estimates
The National Center for Homeless Education lists the number of homeless students, by state, for school year 2010-11, available here. (Table 3)
In addition, the National Alliance to End Homelessness publishes estimates for geographical units grouped as “urban,” “mostly urban,” “rural,” “mostly rural,” and “urban-rural mix.” There are 457 such “continuum of care” (CoC) units in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, used to award federal homelessness funding. The highest rates of homelessness are in urban and mostly-urban CoCs. More information is here.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors reports on the past-year percent-change in family homelessness for 25 task force cities.
The Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End homelessness has set a goal to prevent and end homelessness for families, youth, and children by the year 2020.
What Works to Make Progress on This Indicator
In New York City, housing subsidies have been shown to be effective in promoting housing stability among families previously using shelters. Intensive permanent supportive housing programs also have positive effects on housing stability and, to a lesser extent, on parental employment and participation in education programs. More information is available here.
Access to legal representation may also forestall eviction of low-income families. See here.
In Toronto, unaccompanied youth who had dropped out of school who were helped to attain a high school diploma equivalent were more likely to obtain legal employment.9
Specifically on providing trauma-sensitive environments, and trauma-specific care, for homeless families, see The National Child Traumatic Stress Network and Homelessness and Extreme Poverty Working Group. Facts on Trauma and Homeless Children.
Homeless students include those who meet the definition contained in the HEARTH act of 2009:
Someone who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.
Someone who has as a primary nighttime residence a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings, including a car, park, abandoned building, bus or train station, airport, or camping ground.
Someone living in a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designated to provide temporary living arrangements.
Someone who resided in a shelter or place not meant for human habitation and who is exiting an institution where he or she temporarily resided.
Someone who will imminently lose their housing, including housing they own, rent, or live in without paying rent, are sharing with others, and rooms in hotels or motels, has no subsequent residence identified, and lacks the resources or support networks needed to obtain other permanent housing.
A family that has experienced a long-term period without living independently in permanent housing, has experienced persistent instability as measured by frequent moves over such period, and can be expected to continue in such status for an extended period of time because of chronic disabilities, chronic physical health or mental health conditions, substance addiction, histories of domestic violence or childhood abuse, the presence of a child or youth with a disability, or multiple barriers to employment.
Raw Data Sources
McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, Title X, of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
Homeless Management Information Systems.
Recommended citation: Child Trends (2013). Homeless Children and Youth. Retrieved from www.childtrendsdatabank.org/?q=node/340
Last update: April 2013
1National Center on Family Homelessness. (2011). America’s youngest outcasts 2010: State report card on child homelessness. Available at: http://www.homelesschildrenamerica.org/media/NCFH_AmericaOutcast2010_web.pdf.
3Cutuli, J. J., Herbers, J. E., Rinaldi, M., Masten, A. S., and Oberg, C. N. (2010). Asthma and behavior in homeless 4- to 7-year-olds. Pediatrics, 125, 145-151.
4National Center on Family Homelessness. (2011). Op. cit.
5Burt, M. (2007). Understanding homeless youth: Numbers, characteristics, multisystem involvement, and intervention options. Testimony submitted to the U.S. House Committee on Ways and Means, Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support. June 19, 2007.
6United States Conference of Mayors. (2009). Hunger and Homelessness Survey: A status report on hunger and homelessness in America’s cities. Available at: http://usmayors.org/pressreleases/uploads/USCMHungercompleteWEB2009.pdf
United States Conference of Mayors. (2009). Hunger and Homelessness Survey: A status report on hunger and homelessness in America’s cities. Available at: http://usmayors.org/HHSurvey2007/hhsurvey07.pdf
7National Center on Family Homelessness. (2011). Op. cit.
8Hispanics may be any race. Totals for whites do not include Hispanics.
9Gaetz, S. and O’Grady, B. (2002). Making money: Exploring the economy of young homeless workers. Work, Employment & Society, 16 (3), 433-456.