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Educating Homeless Youth

By Farrah Champagne – July 17, 2013

Homeless youth rarely receive the level of education that is necessary for high levels of advancement in our competitive society. Although educating homeless youth may not seem the most pressing issue, it is probably the most important key to their long-term success. Dropping out of high school leads to low earnings and dependence on public assistance. Additionally, a high-school graduate can earn $200,000 more than someone who drops out. This statistic is haunting because according to one study, 75 percent of homeless youth drop out of school before earning their high-school diploma. This leads to high unemployment rates, which negatively affect communities and economic prosperity.

Who Are Homeless Youth?
Homeless youth are children whose primary nighttime residence is in a public area or private place that is not normally used for sleeping accommodations. 42 U.S.C. § 11434a(2)(B)(i). Homeless children live in cars, parks, subway stations, public areas, and abandoned homes. 42 U.S.C. § 11434a(2)(B)(i). In addition, these children sometimes share housing with others after losing their primary place of residence. They also may live in motels, trailer parks, campgrounds, or homeless shelters. Many of them are waiting for foster-care placement. 42 U.S.C. § 11434a(2)(B)(i).

Homelessness can destroy educational opportunities for children. Compared with other children, homeless youth have a higher rate of delayed development and are more likely to repeat a grade. Homeless students face significant barriers to education including lack of transportation and difficulty with school record transfer and registration requirements. School provides security and stability for homeless youth. It is necessary that homeless youth receive the “educational stability and the opportunity to maintain regular consistent attendance in school so that they acquire the skills necessary to escape poverty and lead productive, healthy lives as adults.” McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act of 2001, H.R. 623, 107th Cong. § 2(7) (2001).

Homelessness causes so much emotional and physical stress for youth that their ability to succeed in school is greatly diminished. The Texas Education Agency describes some of the difficulties:

Homeless children suffer the loss associated with separation from their home, furniture, belongings and pets; the uncertainty of when they will eat their next meal and where they will sleep during the night; the fear of who might hurt them or their family members as they live in strange and frequently violent environments; the embarrassment of being noticeably poor; and the frustration of not being able to do anything to alleviate their (or their family’s) suffering. To assume that a child could push all of such suffering aside to adequately focus on academic tasks may in many cases be unrealistic.

Children who have no home, are lacking in nutrition or do not have a safe, quiet place to do their homework are at risk of failing out of school. This instability has a negative effect on society as a whole.

Lack of Transportation
When children become homeless, they often relocate to areas that are far away from their regular schools. This is problematic and makes it difficult for youth to get to their “school of origin” each day. The McKinney-Vento Act defines the term “school of origin” as “the school that the child or youth attended when permanently housed, or the school in which the child or youth was last enrolled.” 42 U.S.C. § 11432(g)(3)(G). The child’s “school of origin” provides stability and helps the child develop by providing a sense of belonging and support. Without this sense of stability, homeless youth do not have the opportunity to receive the life-changing benefits that education provides. In Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court stated,

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society . . .  It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.

347 U.S. 483, 493 (1954).

Education offers homeless youth the opportunity to succeed and escape from poverty. As homeless children move frequently, their education is disrupted, which is detrimental to their overall success. Although homeless youth face many obstacles, lack of transportation is one of their biggest problems. Homeless youth often do not have access to cars and cannot afford public transportation. This reality often leads to poor school attendance.

Responding to Homeless Youth: The McKinney-Vento Act of 2001
The McKinney-Vento Act provides education rights to homeless youth. 42 U.S.C. § 11432(g)(3)(A). The act served as a strengthening mechanism for the No Child Left Behind Act, and it requires school districts to help homeless youth in local communities. For example, McKinney-Vento requires that school districts keep homeless kids in their original school district unless it goes against the wishes of the child’s parent or guardian. 42 U.S.C. § 11432(g)(3)(B)(i). In addition, homeless youth are allowed to enroll in new schools even if they lack the necessary documentation. Schools also must provide homeless youth with transportation to and from school. 42 U.S.C. § 11432(g)(1)(J)(iii).

McKinney-Vento provides youth with a measure of educational stability despite unstable living conditions. Stability in education has been identified as a key to success in academics. McKinney-Vento has its problems, however, because it has yet to be funded adequately, and it does not apply to youth who are in foster care. Some school districts view McKinney-Vento with disdain because it only provides “twenty to thirty dollars per homeless youth.” Melinda Atkinson, Aging Out of Foster Care: Towards a Universal Safety Net for Former Foster Care Youth, 43 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. 183, 190 (2008). Without adequate funding for transportation services, homeless youth may not be able to remain in their school of choice. There is a significant gap between the creation of the law and the implementation of the law, and this gap will widen unless some changes are made with the funding implementation.

Enforcing the McKinney-Vento Act Through Litigation
To prompt schools to fulfill their duty under the McKinney-Vento Act, advocates have used litigation to obtain rights for homeless youth. Litigation helps protect the rights of homeless youth, but it may necessitate the use of a significant amount of resources. There are other strategies, however, that can be employed such as monitoring schools for compliance, public education, and legislative advocacy. These techniques can be used in conjunction with litigation strategies to achieve compliance. Deborah M. Thompson, Breaking the Cycle of Poverty: Models of Legal Advocacy to Implement the Educational Promise of the McKinney Act for Homeless Children and Youth, 31 Creighton L. Rev. 1209, 1239 (1998).

In Lampkin v. District of Columbia, several homeless mothers of school-age children sued the District of Columbia under section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act to enforce educational-service provisions of the McKinney-Vento Act. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty filed suit on behalf of the parents, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief requiring the school system to (1) determine what is in the best interest of the child when placing them in a school; (2) ensure that each homeless child has access to transportation services and meal programs; and (3) provide each homeless child with educational services that are comparable to the services offered to other students. Lampkin v. District of Columbia, 27 F.3d 605, 607 (D.C. Cir. 1994).

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the case, holding that the McKinney-Vento Act was not enforceable under section 1983. The court relied on Suter v. Artist M. in its finding that “the only requirement that the Act imposes upon states is the duty to submit a proper application if the state wishes to receive federal funding to educate homeless children.”Lampkin v. District of Columbia, No. 92-0910, 1992 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8049, at *15 (D.D.C. 1992) (citing Suter v. Artist M., 503 U.S. 347 (1992)).

The D.C. Court of Appeals reversed the decision and held that the McKinney-Vento Act imposes obligations that are “specific,” “mandatory,” and “enforceable” under section 1983. On remand, the district court held that the plaintiffs were entitled to declaratory and injunctive relief. Lampkin v. District of Columbia, 879 F. Supp. 116, 127 (D.D.C. 1995). The court declared that the District of Columbia failed to (1) address in a timely manner the educational needs of homeless children and (2) provide access to transportation so that homeless children could get to and from school. Id.

The court ordered the district to identify each homeless child upon his or her arrival at an intake center, and within 72 hours the district was required to refer the child for educational services, which included transportation. The court also ordered the district to provide bus tokens on a weekly basis to all homeless youth who had to travel more than 1.5 miles to get to school. In addition, the court ordered the district to offer bus tokens to homeless parents who wished to accompany their school-aged child to and from school. The court stated that the district could “inaugurate a busing system specifically for homeless children, or piggyback on the program currently open to special education students.” The district could decide which alternative worked best for achieving the goal of free and adequate transportation for homeless youth.

Instead of complying with the order handed down by the court, the District of Columbia withdrew entirely from the McKinney-Vento program. This ended its obligation to provide assistance to homeless youth. Lampkin v. District of Columbia, 886 F. Supp. 56 (D.D.C. 1995). The mayor and city council stated that the cost of compliance with the McKinney-Vento Act was more than they were willing to spend, as it did not survive “its head-on collision with budget realities.” Id. at 63. The court dissolved the injunction commenting:

The court's task is clear. It cannot create out of whole cloth a statutory scheme to do good by the City's homeless children. The court must interpret and apply existing law. Given the District's withdrawal from the Program, there is now no law to apply. Defendants have succeeded in circumventing the requirements of the McKinney Act, thereby denying District citizens the federal assistance that would otherwise have been available. If there is to be a remedy, it lies with the District's voters, not with this court.


Although D.C. withdrew from the McKinney-Vento program, a report by the National Law Center found that D.C. public schools have continued to implement provisions of the McKinney-Vento Act. Deborah M. Thompson, Breaking the Cycle of Poverty: Models of Legal Advocacy to Implement the Educational Promise of the McKinney Act for Homeless Children and Youth, 31 Creighton L. Rev. 1209, 1242 (1998) (citing Nat'l Law Ctr. on Homelessness & Poverty, A Foot in the Schoolhouse Door: Progress and Barriers to the Education of Homeless Children (Sept. 1995)).

Homelessness negatively affects a child’s ability to succeed in school. All too often, the failure to succeed in school leads to adult homelessness and poverty. To assist homeless youth, Congress enacted the McKinney-Vento Act, which directed that homeless youth be provided with appropriate public education. Legal advocates can assist homeless youth by monitoring for compliance, educating the public, and litigating cases on their behalf. Advocates can also ensure that homeless youth succeed in their educational pursuits by working together to improve educational services.

Keywords: litigation, pro bono, public interest, civil rights, education, homeless, youth, transportation, McKinney-Vento, children

Farrah Champagne is a third-year law student at American University Washington College of Law.

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