By Shaw Qin, AmeriCorps State & National Member
In the past year, more than 8,000 migrants have arrived in Chicago seeking asylum and permanent residence (Bosman, 2023). Due to the city’s limited investment in resources and services for migrants, many are now staying in temporary shelters, police stations, and respite centers. At HOPES, we have also seen an increasing number of migrants in our programs, two of which now have 30% Spanish-speaking families. Amidst the public attention and debate, this migrant influx sheds light on an often invisible population and their experience – immigrants experiencing homelessness*.
* Unless otherwise specified, this article uses “immigrant” to refer to all types of immigrants, refugees, and international migrants, although the particular contexts of migration influence their housing experiences.
Across the globe, international migration has continued to expand in recent years. As of 2020, migrants comprise 3.6% of the world population, compared to 2.8% two decades ago (McAuliffe & Triandafyllidou, 2021). Among the countries migrants arrive in, the U.S. remains the primary destination, with over 51 million international migrants as of 2020. However, some of those migrants face precarious housing situations compounded by characteristics related to their immigrant status. According to a systematic review of immigrants’ housing experiences, immigrants’ barriers to stable and secure housing include interpersonal racism, past trauma and stress in their new environment, poor access to services (e.g., lack of awareness and language barriers), and limited financial resources (Kaur et al., 2021). Additionally, cultural backgrounds and differences may hinder immigrants from seeking housing services, such as immigrants not identifying as homeless (Couch, 2017) or cultural and religious incompatibility with housing service providers (Gilleland et al., 2016). Moreover, in the case of undocumented immigrants, their legal status strongly hinders their seeking services, due to their disqualifications in some public services and their fear of deportation if their status is revealed (Kaur et al., 2021). In summary, immigrants face various instabilities that could lead them to homelessness and barriers to services that could help them regain or maintain stability.
The intersection of immigration and homelessness also poses unique challenges to educating children with this background. Students’ experiences of immigration, acculturation, and homelessness can lead to mental health issues and stress (Khan et al., 2022), which may affect their general well-being and educational outcomes (Rossen & Cowan, 2014). Furthermore, previously discussed barriers to service access can also increase the difficulty for children to benefit from educational services related to homelessness. Although students are eligible for services under the McKinney-Vento Act regardless of immigration and documentation status (SchoolHouse Connection, 2022), immigrant families may not know its existence or their eligibility (Sills-Carter, 2019). Relatedly, schools and other service providers may be unable to identify those immigrant students experiencing homelessness and provide multilingual services in a culturally sensitive manner (Sills-Carter, 2019). Moreover, many immigrant families experiencing homelessness live in housing situations called “doubling up,” or multiple families sharing living space (Gilleland et al., 2016, p. 16). Consequently, these families may not consider themselves homeless (Couch, 2017) and have housing situations similar to multigenerational households typical in many immigrants’ cultures (SchoolHouse Connection, 2022). This increases the difficulty of providing educational services for their children.
Despite the barriers to housing stability, immigrants experiencing homelessness also display resilience in various ways, which should form the basis of serving this population. Multiple studies show that immigrants’ social capital (Im, 2016), including ethnic networks (Sills-Carter, 2019) and nurturing social and family connectedness (Khan et al., 2022), buffers the stress of housing insecurity. However, immigrants’ social and familial connections might not be enough to ensure housing stability unless the networks include ample knowledge or information on social support resources (Sills-Carter, 2019). In other cases, some immigrants do not have any social connections in this country. This is where service providers may come into the picture. Housing service providers can collaborate with the immigrant community and immigrant service providers to build cultural competence in serving the community. For educators, this can begin with collaboration among McKinney-Vento, Migrant Education, and English Language Learner programs in the school system and across community organizations with those specific focuses. This way, service providers can build on each others’ specialties. For example, programs on students’ homelessness may provide culturally-sensitive multilingual services after receiving training from the immigrant program, and immigrant programs may recognize students who could experience homelessness and make referrals. At HOPES, we strive to better meet the need of the migrant community by piloting a Spanish-only program and prioritizing recruiting bilingual site coordinators. Last but not least, service providers may encourage immigrants they serve to invite people in their social network to use their service if needed.
In conclusion, educating immigrant students experiencing homelessness is crucial for their success. However, there is a dearth of research centering on this intersection, particularly in the U.S. educational setting, due to immigrant homelessness’s more invisible nature (e.g., “doubling up” and being unwilling or unable to receive service). Although research in other countries and on other topics (e.g., healthcare and immigrant homelessness) can inform educators’ work in the U.S., more research is critical in helping service providers understand the communities’ needs and develop best practices to ensure all students receive adequate education and services.
SchoolHouse Connection: Strategies for Supporting Immigrant and Migrant Students Experiencing Homelessness.
National Center of Homeless Education: Translations of Homeless Education Materials
Bosman, J. (May 10, 2023). Open-armed Chicago feels the strains of a migrant influx. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/10/us/chicago-migrants-title-42.html
Couch, J. (2017). “Neither here nor there”: Refugee young people and homelessness in Australia. Children and Youth Services Review, 74, 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2017.01.014
Gilleland, J., Lurie, K, & Rankin, S. (2016). A broken dream: Homelessness & immigrants. http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2776890
Im, H. (2011). A social ecology of stress and coping among homeless refugee families [Doctoral dissertation, University of Minnesota]. University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy. https://hdl.handle.net/11299/116170
Kaur, H., Saad, A., Magwood, O., Alkhateeb, Q., Mathew, C., Khalaf, G., & Pottie, K. (2021). Understanding the health and housing experiences of refugees and other migrant populations experiencing homelessness or vulnerable housing: A systematic review using GRADE-CERQual. Canadian Medical Association Open Access Journal, 9(2), E681-E692. https://doi.org/10.9778/cmajo.20200109
Khan, B. M., Waserman, J., & Patel, M. (2022). Perspectives of refugee youth experiencing homelessness: A qualitative study of factors impacting mental health and resilience. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 13, 917200. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2022.917200
McAuliffe, M., & Triandafyllidou, A. (Eds.). (2021). World Migration Report 2022. International Organization for Migration (IOM), Geneva. https://publications.iom.int/books/world-migration-report-2022
Rossen, E., & Cowan, K. C. (2014). Improving mental health in schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 96(4), 8-13. https://doi.org/10.1177/0031721714561438
SchoolHouse Connection. (June 16, 2022). Strategies for supporting immigrant and migrant students experiencing homelessness. https://schoolhouseconnection.org/strategies-for-supporting-immigrant-and-migrant-students-experiencing-homelessness/
Sills-Carter, A. (2019). Accessibility to resources for homeless documented immigrant families: A case study [Doctoral dissertation, University of Missouri - Saint Louis]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.