“It’s a Hard-Knock Life for Us”: Homeless Children’s Invisibility in U.S. Schools and Beyond

By | Dec 15, 2014

apple-256264_640Yesterday I went to a movie screening. One of the trailers was for the remake of the movie Annie. The original musical is a rags-to-riches tale of an orphan who is mistreated by the orphanage’s headmistress and whose life miraculously changes for the better after a chance encounter with one of the wealthiest men in America, Oliver Warbucks, who is captivated by Annie’s spirit and eventually adopts her.

I was about the same age as Annie when I first saw the original movie and immediately fell in love with its plot and musical score. I memorized every single song; however, my favorite was “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” because of the story its lyrics told:

It’s the hard-knock life for us!
It’s the hard-knock life for us!
‘Steada treated,
We get tricked!
‘Steada kisses,
We get kicked!
It’s the hard-knock life!

Even as a child watching the movie, you could clearly notice the dichotomy between Annie’s life of poverty and the opulence that defines Daddy Warbucks’ life. It seemed as though the only way for Annie’s everyday existence to improve was to simply pluck her away from her “hard-knock life.”

However, as many young children living in poverty or who are homeless can attest to—life is not that simple. Magical rescues by rich fairy godfathers (and godmothers) usually only happen in the movies. Nor are those “rescues” the solution to systemic inequities and social injustice.

The U.S. Department of Education revealed that the number of homeless students in the United States is on the rise (and has been for decades). Their survey found that during the 2012-2013 school year, there were 1.3 million homeless students in the U.S.—which is an 18 percent increase from 2010-2011.

There are also a countless number of homeless students who are unaccounted for in these surveys. For instance—young homeless children who are not old enough to attend school, as well as children who are embarrassed to share they are experiencing homelessness, and/or scared of separation from their parents.

They remain invisible.

I remember when I was a teacher, one of my fourth grade students, “Carlos” was at the top of his class. In the early spring of that year, Carlos started sporadically turning in his homework and his grades began to sharply drop. He was visibly exhausted; one day, he fell asleep during a group assignment and his classmates began to laugh at him. That day, I asked him if there was anything that had changed or if there was something he was worried about. Carlos shared that his father had lost his job as a cook and that they had to move into a one bedroom apartment, which his family of five shared with three other families. He had to sleep on a blanket on the living room floor. Carlos tried to do his homework at home but there was too much noise because so many people came in and out of that apartment. Eventually the electricity was shut off because they could not afford to pay it. I had a friend who was a social worker and she helped connect Carlos’ father to employment services. Within the next couple of months, Carlos’ father was able to secure a job and his family was able to move into their own apartment. In the interim, Carlos was able to complete his work in my classroom, which helped him have more free time once he got home and this lessened his worry about doing well in school.

Carlos’ experience of losing stable housing is not the exception. For my dissertation, I researched four Latino immigrant families with young children. Reminiscent to Carlos’ experience, all of these families lived “doubled-up”—that is they were living in small apartments with multiple families or sleeping on couches. In short, they did not have a permanent place to live. Statistically, 75% of homeless students in the U.S. experience these kinds of “living” conditions. Another 16 % of homeless children reside in shelters and 6 % live in hotels and motels. There are also children who sleep with their families in cars.

Due to such instability and residential mobility, homeless children are oftentimes adversely affected academically, psychologically, and socially (Chow, Mistry, & Melchor, 2015). Recent studies have shown that homeless children are more likely to experience grade retention and achieve lower scores on standardized tests. Startlingly, homeless children are 87 percent more likely than their housed peers to be pushed out of school.

So where do we go from here? The first question that comes to mind is: What is currently being done policy-wise and on-the-ground to help remedy this issue?

There are certain initiatives that have been created to help homeless families with young children. For instance, Opening Doors became the nation’s first comprehensive strategy to prevent and end homelessness among families and children by 2020. Opening Doors emphasizes that the key to preventing and ending homelessness for families and children is for mainstream housing, health, education, and human service programs to be fully engaged and coordinated.

Another powerful tool that has been used to prevent and end homelessness has been the “housing first” approach. Several homeless agencies, such as PATH, have found that by providing families with permanent affordable housing AND wrap-around supportive services—they are less likely to fall into or back into homelessness.

HUD’s Family Options Study’s interim report found that families who are homeless are highly motivated to pursue opportunities for permanent housing and that families who are homeless do not always take up the program that is offered to them, which suggests that programs do not always deliver assistance that families perceive as more valuable than their other options. This finding underscores the importance of providing people experiencing homelessness with affordable housing and supportive services specifically targeted towards each person’s needs.

It will be interesting to see the progress that we have made towards ending homelessness among children and families by 2020. Half a decade remains to reach that goal.

Yet, the numbers don’t lie.

Over a million homeless children in the U.S. (and countless who have not been included in homeless counts) continue to experience “hard-knock” lives. They don’t need a billionaire, like Oliver Warbucks to save them. They need us to collectively unmask hidden issues and create tangible solutions that prevent and end their homelessness. It is not “their” problem to fix. It is all of ours.