Supporting Families with Young Children Experiencing Homelessness

About this resource
Reviewed: 2019

This tool kit is a resource to help early childhood, school, and community professionals understand how they can support families who may be experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity. IEL also has a resource list, When Children Are Homeless or Housing Insecure: How Preschool Teachers and Caregivers Can Help, which includes additional resources for educators, caregivers, and community professionals working with young children and their families.

Getting Started

The number of homeless children and youth enrolled in school continues to increase. Local educational agencies (LEAs) are responsible for providing the same educational experience to homeless children and youth as they do to other children and youth. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act includes provisions that states must make to provide appropriate assistance to LEAs in their efforts to serve children and families. This toolkit includes information for early childhood providers on identifying families who are homeless or housing insecure and meeting their basic needs as well as information on requirements, educational rights, resources on well-being, and links to Illinois resources.

Identifying Families

  • For schools to be able to provide services to young children and families experiencing homelessness, they must be able to identify those students. Understanding the McKinney-Vento definition of homeless is the first step in this process. This flowchart is helpful.
  • LEAs in Illinois use the Common Form to enroll homeless children and youth, which asks families to list younger children living in the home. Enrolled students can be referred to the homeless education liaison using the referral form.
  • The Illinois State Board of Education website includes resources on residency, immigrant pupils, homeless pupils, and school fees and waivers in Illinois. Identified K–12 students must be immediately enrolled. All barriers (lack of required immunization and health records, birth certificates, school records, residency documents, guardianship issues) must be removed.
  • Listening to families as they share their information and experiences is a critical part first step to identifying families experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity. It is helpful for programs to make their staff aware of the definition of homelessness according to McKinney-Vento and ensure that all staff know how to contact and refer families to the homeless education liaison.
  • This recorded ISBE webinar provides information on identification, school stability, enrollment, and decision-making for early childhood programs in Illinois.  

Basic Needs

Food

  • Homeless children and youth are automatically eligible for the federal Child Nutrition Program, including the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, and the Special Milk Program. More information is available on this brief from the National Center for Homeless Education.
  • Some people who are homeless may qualify for food help through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). There are work requirements for the SNAP program, but some parents with young children may not be subject to the requirements.

Shelter

Educational Rights

  • The early years lay the foundation for learning, behavior, and health for children. This brief describes eligibility, rights, legislation, and opportunities for coordinating services for families experiencing homelessness. 
  • Preschool programs funded by a local educational agency can enroll, or continue to serve, young children who become homeless. Children must be enrolled immediately, even if the family does not have the otherwise required documentation. 
  • Families have the rights to the following:
    • School choice – Families can choose to keep their children at the last school they attended when they had permanent housing, the school where they were last enrolled, or their designated receiving school.
    • Immediate enrollment – Schools cannot require academic records, medical records, or other documents. The liaison can gather necessary paperwork after enrollment.
    • Transportation – Homeless students can get transportation to and from school and school activities.
    • Fee waivers for fees and field trips.
    • Free meals – Children experiencing homelessness can get free meals at school without completing any forms. 
  • The Illinois State Board of Education’s Homeless Education page provides links to important forms, funding and legislation information, and additional resources.

Well-being

  • Once basic needs are met, additional needs can be addressed. This tip sheet from the National Center on Early Childhood Health and Wellness explores the effects of homelessness on children’s health and wellness and steps providers can take to connect families with additional resources.
  • Early childhood providers can use this self-assessment tool to guide their efforts to welcome and support families and children experiencing homelessness. Sections C and D address family needs and community collaboration to support all families.
  • Considering the impact of traumatic experiences such as homelessness is critical for early childhood professionals to understand strategies for supporting families who have experienced trauma.

Helping Families Locate Resources

Early childhood, school, and community professionals in Illinois can help families find resources for basic needs, understand their educational rights, locate child care and development supports, and enhance their well being with our Resource Directory for Illinois Families with Young Children Experiencing Homelessness and Housing Insecurity.

Acknowledgments

The creation of this tool kit was supported by the Preschool Development Grant Birth through Five Initiative (PDG B-5), Grant Number 90TP0001-01-00, from the Office of Child Care, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Office of Child Care, the Administration for Children and Families, or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.