More Than a Place to Sleep: Understanding the Health and Well-Being of Homeless High School Students

More Than a Place to Sleep: Understanding the Health and Well-Being of Homeless High School Students

Executive Summary

In New York City, one out of every eight public school students has been homeless at some point in the past five years. One in four (26%) of these students is in high school. In More Than a Place To Sleep: Understanding the Health and Well-Being of Homeless High School Students, we begin to explore differences in risk behaviors and health outcomes between homeless high school students and their housed classmates. Homeless high school students are struggling to not only find a place to sleep, but to meet their mental, emotional, and physical health needs as they pursue educational goals necessary to break the cycle of poverty and homelessness.

A Heavy Burden

Homeless students face disproportionate burdens across the board—they are more likely to fall behind academically due to school transfers, absenteeism, and other instability factors; they are more likely to be suspended; they are less likely to receive timely identification for special education services; and the list goes on. What this report reveals is that these students face yet another set of obstacles to educational achievement—their health and risk behaviors—that, if unaddressed, will make it harder for them to finish school, follow professional goals, and remain stably housed in their own adult lives.

As New York City works to improve outcomes for homeless students, those efforts must incorporate an understanding of risk behaviors and health outcomes, which have been shown to predict well-being and productivity later in life. This report uses data from the Centers for Disease Control’s 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), which for the first time includes survey questions allowing us to distinguish homeless from housed students.

A Promising Approach

One promising approach is ensuring the access of homeless teens to school-based health centers. While homeless students have limited access to these centers, they are more likely than their housed peers to use health services when they are available. Moreover, many shelters could be re-envisioned as Community Residential Resource Centers (CRRCs) where educational resources and support services could be made available to not only homeless students, but all students in the community.

Meeting the needs of homeless high school students is paramount, as risk behaviors and health outcomes impact their futures. These students have unequivocally worse health outcomes than housed teens. They also make up a disproportionately large segment of students facing the most extreme health risks. At only 12% of the YRBS sample, homeless high school students represent a third or more of all students facing a range of health risks. Without targeted policy and program interventions, the future of these homeless teens is not promising. Just read the accompanying quotes throughout this publication—in their own voices, students share some of their struggles, hopes, and disappointments as they navigate high school while homeless.

Supporting Students and Parents

Importantly, More Than a Place to Sleep: Understanding the Health and Well-Being of Homeless High School Students examines homeless teens who still reside with their parents or guardians in shelters, doubled-up with family or friends, or in other unstable conditions, as well as potentially unaccompanied students. In addition to policies that support and protect these students, we should also consider how to support their parents in understanding the risks faced by their children, even as homeless parents cope with their own challenges.

Enacting policies and designing programs that aid homeless students also require more information. Despite the fact that over 100,000 homeless students are enrolled in the City’s public and charter schools, data on the health outcomes, needs, behaviors, and risks are not available for the vast majority of these struggling students.1 Of homeless students enrolled in NYC public schools, 78% are in elementary and middle school.2 Yet due to its focus on high school students, the YRBS does not capture their experience and there is currently no other data available on the health of homeless students. This is a critical information gap to fill in order to meet the needs of our city’s children. Likewise, there is scant information on the health needs of homeless parents—a gap in information that, because of the critical link between parental and child health, impacts the city’s children as well.

Tailored interventions and better data collection to meet the health needs of homeless students are essential to improve the current and future welfare of these children.

ORGANIZATION: Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness
LOCATION: New York, NY, U.S.A.