Critical Connections: Ensuring Mental Health Services for Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness

Homelessness is caused by traumatic events, and often leads to traumatic events, creating compounding layers of complex trauma that have serious consequences, often having a significant impact on mental health. The isolation and aftermath of the pandemic have exacerbated these dynamics and stressors.

For example, recent Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data show that high school students experiencing homelessness were more likely to have feelings of sadness and hopelessness, and to resort to self-harm and attempted suicide more often than their peers who do not experience homelessness.

In fact, students experiencing homelessness were three times more likely to attempt suicide compared to stably housed youth. 

Despite their heightened risk for self-harm and suicide, children and youth experiencing homelessness face barriers to accessing mental health services: high mobility, lack of transportation, and lack of connectivity can prevent them for getting the help they need. If students experiencing homelessness are not identified by schools, they miss out on critical protections and services — including mental health services. This is particularly troubling because for many students experiencing homelessness, school is their sole mental health services provider, and may be their only opportunity to receive caring, individualized attention from adults. Without intentional and specific inclusion in and prioritization for school-based mental health efforts, some of our nation’s most vulnerable children and youth are unlikely to receive the help they desperately need.

Specific strategies for identifying and reaching children and youth experiencing homelessness.

1. Include school district homeless liaisons, designated under the McKinney-Vento Act, as a priority source of referrals to early identification and intervention programs and school based mental health and wrap-around services.

2. Ensure that basic needs are met, so that students can attend to their mental health. Children and youth experiencing homelessness may need help accessing food on the weekend or evenings, basic hygiene, and clothing. American Rescue Plan – Homeless Children and Youth funds may be used for store cards and in other ways to support basic needs.

3. Provide flexible options to meet the mental health needs of highly mobile students, for example:

  • On-site mental health providers that can take walk-ins during the day, so students can fulfill other obligations after school
  • Mobile mental health services to rural areas to remove transportation barriers
  • Virtual mental health options with the technology to access virtual services

4. Address issues of parental consent for youth who are homeless but not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian (unaccompanied youth). 

5. Use American Rescue Plan, Title IV-A, and other funds to increase access to mental health services for students experiencing homelessness. For example, youth experiencing homelessness often struggle to maintain functioning cell phones and cell phone plans, and may not be able to access suicide hotlines that provide support and save lives.  

School districts are using ARP-HCY funds to support the mental health needs of students experiencing homelessness in a variety of ways.

For example:

Mental health services provided in school buildings during school hours
Mental Health Coordinator partners closely with the homeless liaison
Unaccompanied youth will have access to two years of mental health support
Use of Camp Cope-A-Lot, to support mental health, stress and anxiety.
Local agency to provide private mental health services to students experiencing homelessness
Mental health program that provides homework support and small group counseling
Partnerships for mental health and case management services with local universities
Bilingual mental health services to immigrant youth experiencing homelessness
Part-time Mental Health Clinician

What action steps can schools take to support the mental health of students experiencing homelessness?

The following action steps were suggested by young people who experienced homelessness and trauma in high school.

1. Normalize mental health.

Talk about mental health openly and often. Youth noted that “destigmatizing depression, anxiety, and mental illness, in general, would be a big step in the right direction. Nurses and counselors could visit classrooms and discuss the commonality of things like this.

2. Increase awareness of existing counseling services and mental health supports.

Many students may not be aware that schools have counselors they can speak with in confidence. If they are aware, they might not feel comfortable in their ability to access those programs and services. For example, only 48% of African American students reported feeling like they were able to reach out to a teacher about mental health concerns, compared to 57% of white students.

3. Invest in staffing.

Schools need to “have enough staff that students are able to make personal connections, and to help foster informal check-ins.” It takes time for McKinney-Vento homeless liaisons, school counselors, social workers, teachers, nurses, and others to build trust with students. Such investments in students’ emotional health must be valued and prioritized. Schools and districts can use the American Rescue Plan Homeless Children and Youth funds to hire more counselors and social workers and/or add hours specifically to work with students experiencing homelessness.

4. In addition to providing staff and resources to ensure student mental health needs are met, schools should offer support that acknowledges that students of color disproportionately encounter stress and mental health needs.

Hire staff and counselors of color who can empathize with student needs, and know that not all students of color have the same mental health needs. Several schools and districts have implemented “grow-your-own” programs to recruit former students to work in schools as educators and counselors.

In Washington state, Wahluke School District’s Academia Bilingüe de Wahluke actively recruits bilingual graduates to serve as teachers. Research shows that the risks for mental health issues in students of color are reduced by having teachers with similar backgrounds, which can help students experience a positive school environment and high levels of social support.

5. Increase school-based mental health supports and services.

Offer school phones in private locations for students to call suicide hotlines whenever needed. Youth experiencing homelessness often struggle to maintain functioning cell phones and cell phone plans, yet suicide hotlines provide support and a listening ear that literally save lives. Create school-based peer educational training programs to inform young people about depression and suicidality and to support students experiencing these risk behaviors.

6. Respect youth autonomy.

A consensus among youth surveyed was to “let students know what resources are available to them. Be clear about the procedure followed when students disclose [suicidal thoughts] so they can make an informed choice about disclosure—don’t force interventions that students don’t want, [and] let them know what they need to do to avoid them. [Not] allowing students to safely disclose suicidal feelings is more dangerous than allowing someone to leave after disclosing.”

7. Review all school policies to ensure they are trauma-informed.

It’s paramount to specifically consider the trauma and needs of students experiencing homelessness.

Mental Health Resources & Crisis Support

We’ve compiled a robust index of resources for you to learn more about mental health and how it can present obstacles for our children and youth, especially those experiencing homelessness. If you or someone you know is in a dangerous situation, or in need of medical, emotional, or physical support, there is help available.