Homelessness or Transient Living

General Information

The typical picture of homelessness is of someone living on the street, asking for spare change or sleeping on a bench or in a doorway. That is only part of the picture of homelessness. For children and youth, and in rural communities, homelessness is far more often hidden than visible. Raising the Roof, Canada’s national fundraising and homelessness information organization, estimates that 80% of Canada’s homeless population is actually hidden.

Homeless children and youth might be in any of the following circumstances:

  • sharing housing with another family or friends on a temporary basis
  • living in an emergency shelter or campground
  • living in a temporary arrangement while waiting for a foster care placement
  • living in a car or van with their family
  • sleeping in a different place every night or every few weeks.

Families and children become homeless for many reasons, including

  • poverty and accumulating debt
  • unemployment
  • family breakdown
  • placement breakdown in the child welfare system
  • lack of affordable housing in a community.

General Characteristics To Look For

Children and youth often do not directly say that they do not have a place to live. Be on the lookout for the signs of possible homelessness in children and youth:

  • a history of changing schools
  • erratic attendance, frequent lateness
  • hunger, poor hygiene
  • evasiveness about where they are staying
  • inadequate clothing for the weather
  • falling asleep in class
  • doing less well in their school work than usual
  • any other changes in their usual pattern of attendance, appearance, and behaviour.

Impact On Student Success

The impact of homelessness on the education of children and youth is profound. In its early stages, homelessness affects a student’s ability to be prepared for and function in school. It also leads to changing schools and missing days of school. In the longer term, homelessness can contribute to students dropping out of school, which might not be noticed right away if a student has been in the school for only a short time. Children and youth often move along a continuum of homelessness, from a first tentative break with their families and homes and then coming and going until they make a permanent break. This process is often accompanied by missing more and more school until they eventually drop out. Schools that can identify students who are at risk of leaving home have an opportunity to intervene to try to prevent the eventual break with the education system.

In urban communities, where a formalized shelter system exists, schools and shelters have worked together to make sure that children and youth in the shelters can attend school, preferably the school they attended before entering the shelter. In communities that lack a formal shelter network, it is more difficult to know when a student is homeless. A key feature of an evolving shelter network needs to be a commitment to keeping children and youth in their schools, providing transportation when it is needed.

  • Remember that children and youth have little or no control over the circumstances that have left them homeless.
  • Be aware that students may be couch surfing and not identify themselves as homeless.
  • Homelessness in younger children looks different than homelessness in youth, and different supports may be required.
  • Homelessness can be an embarrassment to children. Make sure that any conversations with children about their circumstances or offers of support for them are conducted in private.
  • Resist unnecessary school transfers for homeless students. Try to keep them in their home schools.
  • Recognize that homelessness and poverty go hand in hand. Whatever can be done to address poverty will also assist children and youth who are homeless.
  • Watch for the signs in children’s behaviour that might point to homelessness.
  • Consider homelessness as a possible cause of changes in a student’s behaviour.
  • Recognize that homeless students may not have anywhere to do homework. If you have concerns, ask students about their space for doing homework and allow for homework time during the school day if necessary.
  • Recognize that homeless students may need additional support and tutoring.
  • Recognize that frequent moves can set a child back academically. This is a separate issue from their potential to perform at age and grade level.
  • Provide training and awareness for teachers about the signs and impact of homelessness.
  • Look at the need for programs such as Breakfast for Learning, school lunches, homework clubs, or facilities for taking a shower or washing clothes.
  • Stay in touch with parents or caregivers.
  • Review policies that might put homeless students at a disadvantage.
  • Find out what resources are available in the community and try to find a more permanent place to live.
  • If possible, make sure that children can get to the school they usually attend.
  • Work with community agencies to find permanent homes for youth temporarily staying with the families of friends and make the school aware of what is happening.
  • Keep the school informed (eg., contact phone numbers) and work with school staff to support the child’s education.
  • Work with families who identify as homeless and the schools their children usually attend to make sure that those children can get to those schools (e.g., make the necessary driving arrangements).
  • In rural communities, recruit volunteer drivers to accommodate homeless students.
  • Develop a community strategy that addresses poverty and homelessness.
  • Advocate for more affordable housing in your community.