Recognizing Homelessness



The McKinney-Vento Act defines “homeless youths” to mean those lacking “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” This includes children who:

  • Share housing due to “loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason”
  • “Live in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or campgrounds due to lack of adequate alternative accommodations”
  • Live in “emergency or transitional shelters”
  • Are “awaiting foster care placement”
  • Have a primary nighttime residence that is not designed or intended for human sleeping accommodations (e.g. park benches, etc.)
    Live in “cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations…”

In Utah, 15,808 children under the age of six have been identified as homeless. More than half of the children living in shelters and transitional housing in Utah are under the age of 5.


Sometimes it is hard to know if a child in your care is homeless. Families will not always self-identify, often due to fear, shame, and embarrassment. Simply asking a family if they are homeless is not a good strategy. Providers should ask families to describe their living situation and whether that situation is permanent. Providers should also offer options to choose from, such as a car, motel, shelter or living temporarily with family or friends.

Potential signs that a child may be homeless include: poor health and nutrition, unmet medical and dental needs, chronic hunger (may hoard food), fatigue, poor hygiene, lack of showers or baths, wearing the same clothes for several days, poor self-esteem, extreme shyness, difficulty socializing and trusting people, aggression, protective or parents, and anxiety late in the day. Parents or children can make statements like: “We’ve been moving around a lot.” “Our address is new; I don’t remember it.” “We are staying with relatives until we get settled.” “We are going through a bad time right now.”


Child Care Providers are required to be in compliance with the McKinney-Vento Act when enrolling homeless children who meet the definition provided.

One requirement is that the facility can enroll homeless children without documentation required by other children, including immunization records. The family has 90 days after enrollment to provide the records needed.

The provider could create a special form that collects only the essential information needed to enroll or apply, such as names and birthdates. The information should be self-reported by the family and could include a signed affidavit and clearly defined expectations of what documentation is still needed and when it must be submitted.


Children who are homeless are sick four times as often as other children, experience four times the rate of developmental delays, and have three times the rate of emotionally and behavioral problems. They wonder if they will have a roof over their heads at night and what will happen to their families. The impacts of homelessness on children, especially young children, may lead to changes in brain architecture that can interfere with learning, emotional self regulation, cognitive skills, and social relationships.

Active listening, providing information, modeling a sense of humor and fun, showing enthusiasm, instilling hope, and questioning are some techniques useful for helping a child who is homeless to stabilize.

ACTIVE LISTENING. Active listening is perhaps the most important technique that you can use. Active listening with children may involve:

  • Encouraging the expression of feelings
  • Acknowledging the real loss of tragedy experience by a family
  • Normalizing the child’s reactions
  • Reflecting feelings expressed by the child
  • Conveying acceptance of the child, but not of destructive behaviors
  • Reframing the child’s statements or behaviors in tactful ways
  • Summarizing and bringing closure to emotional topics

PROVIDING INFORMATION. Information about community resources can be helpful. Also, assistance in accessing those resource (such as access to a computer) can help families
MODELING A SENSE OF HUMOR. Some children need to be able to relax and take themselves and their situations less seriously. Showing a sense of humor about one’s own mistakes lets children know that no one is perfect and that laughter is sometimes the best medicine.
​SHOWING ENTHUSIASM. The caregiver’s enthusiasm promotes feelings of enthusiasm in a child. The child can begin to gain confidence in their own abilities to resolve a crisis when they see the caregiver as someone who believes they can do so, too.
INSTILLING REALISTIC HOPE. The caregiver’s own ability to instill hope in a child is a critical variable in motivating children to try new coping strategies. Instilling realistic hope requires helping the child to see his or her strengths. Encouraging the child to try new approaches imparts hope.
QUESTIONING. In periods of crisis, it is important for children to be able to organize their thoughts. Asking questions is one way to help children start thinking clearly again. For example, “What have you already tried?” and “What do you want to try next?” are questions that can lead children toward a better alternative.

Child Care providers should also proactively offer multiple options for parents to check in on their children throughout the day, particularly for families who are new to child care. Homeless families may find it especially difficult to entrust their children to child care providers because of previous negative experiences with other service providers or their trauma histories. Allowing parents to call in or to visit the classroom as desired, and to be offered these options from the moment of first engagement, may allay some of these fears.


If you suspect a family is homeless, you can refer the parents to the following for assistance:

Help Hotlines – Dial 211 for up to date services
Homeless Shelter Directory – This has a search for HUD offices and links to the following:

  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • Food Banks
  • Legal Assistance
  • Local tenant rights, laws and protections
  • Social Security offices
  • Homeless Veterans
  • Homeless Veterans Resources
  • National Resource Directory-Homeless Assistance
  • United Way
  • Jobs and job training
  • Skills training and counseling
  • VA Homeless Programs & Initiatives
  • VA Homeless Coordinators Contact information