Supporting Literacy for Homeless Youth


This week marks National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week and serves as a reminder that Oakland’s homeless youth cannot be left behind in our efforts to improve early literacy rates for Oakland students.

A Growing Number of Children are Experiencing Homelessness in the U.S.

The America’s Youngest Outcasts report released this week by the National Center on Family Homelessness found that a staggering 2.5 million children are currently homeless in America, a historic high representing one in every 30 children. The report estimates that over half of homeless children in America are under the age of six and another third are between ages six to 12.

Although an accurate count of homeless children is very difficult to attain, we understand there to be more than 1,200 homeless students in OUSD schools alone, not counting for non school-age children (ages 0-5), non-OUSD students, and homeless students not identified by the district.

The McKinney-Vento Act (federal legislation first passed in 1987) provides the definition of homelessness used by schools and most agencies serving homeless children. Broadly, it includes children who lack “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” For the full definition and more detailed explanation, see the “Who is Homeless” brief from the National Center for Homeless Education. The majority of homeless students live doubled up in shared housing with other families, with this arrangement accounting for 86% of homeless children statewide in the 2012-13 school year.

The Academic Repercussions of Homelessness

America’s Youngest Outcasts” states that “The impact of homelessness on the children, especially young children, is devastating and may lead to changes in brain architecture that can interfere with learning, emotional self-regulation, cognitive skills, and social relationships.

According to the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, homeless youth are significantly less likely than their peers to be proficient in math and reading in elementary school. Research shows that these gaps in reading and math achievement are not made up over time, and only continue to grow through high school (Voight et al., 2012). How ever persistent these achievement gaps between homeless and highly mobile students and their more economically advantaged peers  may be,  Hebers et al. (2012) found that “ For families living in extreme poverty with high risk for homelessness and residential instability, a strong start in the early school years may have a particular significance as a protective factor for child achievement ” (p. 367).

Facing Challenges & Removing Barriers

Homeless youth face many distinct challenges in their school lives. Prolonged absences from school and numerous school changes, the uncertainty and fear they often cope with daily, and limited access to educational tools such as school supplies, books and technology, all make for a unique set of academic challenges and barriers to achievement. Given their high mobility and frequent school transitions, homeless children often fall between the cracks of school-based programming, requiring community-based services that can reach them where they live and follow them throughout their frequent moves over time.

We can all help to ensure that homeless youth in Oakland are among the 85% of students who will be reading at grade level by 2020 by offering individualized and, most importantly, accessible educational support and literacy interventions.

Inspired by the Oakland Reads 2020 (OR2020) initiative,Community Education Partnerships (CEP) has teamed up with the Oakland Literacy Coalition (OLC), the Rogers Family Foundation, and several OLC members including Bring Me A Book, Jumpstart, and the Oakland Public Library to develop and launch an Early Literacy Campaign for preschool-age through early elementary homeless children in Oakland.

The strategies of the Early Literacy Campaign build on the OR2020 focal areas (school readiness, school attendance, summer learning, and family engagement). The Campaign utilizes volunteers and provides volunteer resources like toolkits and training to support student literacy, encourages summer projects between students and volunteers, while simultaneously working with families to improve attendance, and remove barriers to learning and achievement. The Campaign works directly with shelter and housing providers to host Family Reading Nights and incentivize and reward reading. Working together, we intend help as many of Oakland’s homeless students achieve as strong a school start as  possible.

While CEP is proud of our partnerships to support homeless children, we know much more is needed and  encourage you to join us. Even simple actions like donating school supplies can go a long way.  For more ideas on how you or your organization can help, please contact Erica Mohan at .

Other Resources

If you need referrals for services for a homeless family you work with, 211 Bay Area or the Helping the Needy Homeless Shelters & Services Directory are helpful resources.

The National Center for Homeless Education is the U.S. Department of Education’s technical assistance and information center for the federal Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) Program. Head over to their website to find issue briefs, best practices, national and state data, and other helpful resources.


Herbers, Janette E., J.J. Cutuli, Laura M. Supkoff, David Heistad, Chi-Keung Chan, Elizabeth Hinz, and Ann S. Masten. “Early Reading Skills and Academic Achievement Trajectories of Students Facing Poverty, Homelessness, and High Residential Mobility.” Educational Researcher 41 (December, 2012): 366-374.

Voight, Adam, Marybeth Shinn, and Maury Nation. “The Longitudinal Effects of Residential Mobility on the Academic Achievement of Urban Elementary and Middle School Students.” Educational Researcher 41, no. 9 (December, 2012): 385-392.

Submitted by Erica Mohan, Director of Community Education Partnerships.

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