The Task Could Not Be Greater; The Stakes Could Not Be Higher The Homeless Children and Youth of America

Jul 25, 2011 by

Right now, everyone, including even Larry King, is shining the light on education. The problems are complex for all students. But I’m sure it’s even more difficult to move around a lot when you are a student. What are some of the biggest challenges homeless students face?

Dr. Vicky Dill is Senior Program Coordinator for The Texas Homeless Education Office at The University of Texas at Austin.  Her work is performed under the auspices of The Charles A. Dana Center at The University of Texas at Austin and the Region 10 Education Service Center in Richardson, TX.  Dr. Dill is also the Senior Researcher for The Haberman Educational Foundation. Her efforts to make a difference are outline in this timely conversation.   Delia Stafford


Delia Stafford (DS):   Dr. Dill, most of your career has involved either working with children in poverty directly, or supporting them in various ways.  How has your work with The Texas Homeless Education Office added to your understanding of children and youth who are in great need?


Vicky Dill (VSD):  This work has given me an opportunity to interact directly with those in the most dire of circumstances – students who are couch-surfing, who are doubled up and have few clothes, have no idea where their next meal is coming from, or who don’t know what their Mom’s doing or where she is during the day.  Their lives are incomprehensibly difficult and, while we all say that education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty, few of us, myself included at one time, really know how many barriers there are for these children to get to school, stay in school, and do well.  I’ve also learned a great deal from those who work with these children in the schools and who often do whatever it takes to help them survive and thrive.


DS:      Right now, everyone, including even Larry King, is shining the light on education.  The problems are complex for all students.  But I’m sure it’s even more difficult to move around a lot when you are a student.  What are some of the biggest challenges homeless students face?


VSD:    First of all, students fall behind academically because every time they move, the curriculum is different and they start all over learning the ropes and the curriculum in that school.  Every move jeopardizes as much as 3-6 months of a child’s progress in school.  It’s very damaging and very traumatic.


DS:      That’s a tremendous loss.  And many move several times each year, right?


VSD:    Yes, it’s a huge loss and the children suffer emotionally.  For example, in a test-driven environment, students who are academically behind may not be greeted as warmly as those who are stable, even academically precocious.  Of course, students in homeless situations are no less likely to be brilliant and gifted than any other population; yet, seldom are they assessed for giftedness or provided high expectations because it’s assumed they are behind and maybe not even very intelligent.  This stigma follows them into the classroom where they are frequently bullied because of personal hygiene issues, wearing the same clothes every day, or not leaving school at night for a nice home in the suburbs.


DS:      I would assume this problem is exploding in this economy.


VSD:    It is.  It is estimated that there are about 1.5 million children in this nation who are homeless.  With foreclosures numbering about 3 million in 2010, we also have a growing number of students who were middle class last month, and this month, they’re homeless.  The parents don’t know how to get food assistance (SNAP) cards, or use public transportation, or find The Workforce Commission.  They tend to be in denial for a period because they felt homelessness happens to others, but not to them.


DS:      So we have a new type of population that is homeless now?


VSD:    Yes, in addition to the burgeoning numbers of families who are chronically homeless – in and out of friends’ houses, in low-cost motels, sleeping in their cars, or in shelters.


DS:      Families?


VSD:    Yes, most people still think of “the homeless” as those people with signs on street corners when, actually, they should picture the faces of young children, babies, single mothers, and veterans.


DS:      That’s really tragic.  What can be done?


VSD:    As usual, knowledge is power.  Schools have a vital role to play.  There is a law, the McKinney-Vento law that all educators should know about and education programs should teach.  It describes the rights of students in homeless situations and instructs schools to enroll them immediately, to provide them with school supplies and standard dress, if required, and supply them academic services as needed.  If educators knew more about this law and followed it, many students would be well served with nutrition, transportation to the school where they became homeless (“school of origin”), tutoring help, and other supports to succeed in school.


DS:      Who might be the best person to help students in school when they become homeless?


VSD:    Every district is, by law, instructed to name a “homeless liaison.”  This person’s responsibilities are also described in the law, and they are the first point of contact.  They should be carefully chosen for their ability to be sensitive, caring, and tireless.  They play a crucial role.  If we are not to become a third world country, we need to shatter the cycle of poverty for all homeless families. The task could not be greater and the stakes could not be higher. 


Finally, if students in a homeless situation had even one caring teacher who knows how to build relationships with them, academic progress would soar. It only takes one person in the life of a child to inspire them, build their resilience, and provide them a promising future.


DS:      If anyone wants further information, whom should they contact?


VSD:    My office is always available for any questions.  I encourage you to call The Texas Homeless Education Office at 1-512-475-9702 for further information or contact the office in each state that coordinates services for homeless students in the K-12 schools.  For a list of those offices, contact the National Center for Homeless Education at 


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