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

Mar 01, 2017
  • Description

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.

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.

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.