Students who are homeless constitute aunique subset within today’s school population; those among them who also have disabilities face even greater challenges. Appropriate support models for students with disabilities who are homeless are almost impossible to find. While data are difficult to gather, it appears that few of these students receive ongoing special education support. Most appear to slip through the cracks of public education. This chapter examines the unique characteristics of students with disabilities who are homeless, the legislative mandates for serving them, and promising practices for overcoming institutional and educational obstacles that continue to impede their access to educational opportunities. The practices that are most promising—collaborative relationships at multiple levels, staff development, and social and instructional support for students—are important for educating all homeless students but absolutely essential for the success of homeless students with disabilities.
Students who are homeless manifest a wide range of emotional, social, and academic difficulties commonly seen in students qualifying for special education, including depression, aggression, regression, low frustration tolerance, inattentiveness, poor achievement, low self-esteem, and language and cognitive delays (Anderson et al. 1995; Bassuk 1985; Grant 1990; Heflin and Rudy 1991). While many of these problems may be predictable reactions to homelessness, disabilities can be expected among students who are homeless just as they exist among children and youth in general. Homelessness compounds the challenges presented by disabilities. Although there are no current and reliable estimates of the number of students who are homeless and who qualify for special education, Bassuk (1985) reported that 29 percent of the students she sampled had been in special education. School-age individuals with disabilities who are homeless have a legal right to access special education services to meet their needs, and schools have a legal and ethical obligation to help them. To do this effectively requires an expanded “continuum of care” that integrates school programs with community services for students and their families (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 1995).