Mckinney-Vento Act (1988)

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McKinney-Vento Act (1988)

Melanie B. Abbott

In the late 1970s the problem of homelessness became apparent to many Americans who had never before realized its scope. Throughout the United States, men, women and occasionally children were forced to live in cars, in private shelters, in overcrowded apartments, or even on the streets because they had no housing. Advocates for the homeless filed lawsuits, seeking to have courts order federal and state governments to provide shelter for those who could not provide it for themselves.


The New York Coalition for the Homeless sued the city of New York in 1979, arguing that under the New York Constitution, in Article XVII, section 1, the state had a duty to care for the poor and must provide housing. In Callahan v. Carey (1981), the trial court agreed with the Coalition's argument, prompting the city to settle the case by agreeing to provide shelter for homeless New York City residents. Callahan represented one of relatively few court successes for advocates of the homeless. In general, litigation was not an effective approach to such a widespread and intractable problem.

In the 1980s the federal government reacted to the ever-increasing attention that states were paying to the homelessness problem. President Ronald Reagan declared in 1983, "the provision of a home and a suitable living environment for every American family continues to be a national housing goal" (Proclamation No. 5096, 48 Fed. Reg. 41,751). Despite this broad statement, however, the approach of the federal government throughout the 1980s was to focus efforts to address homelessness in the states rather than at the federal level. Many officials believed that social problems like housing were more effectively addressed by local governments.

Yet some federal officials did continue to press Congress to provide assistance for those in need of housing. One person who did so was Republican Congressman Stewart B. McKinney of Connecticut. McKinney, who represented Fairfield County, one of the wealthiest districts in the country, devoted much of his attention to the problem of homelessness. Shortly after his death in 1987, Congress passed legislation in which it acknowledged the "clear responsibility" of the federal government to deal with homelessness. In tribute to McKinney, the act was named the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act (P.L. 100-77, 101 Stat. 482 [1988]). In 2000 the act was renamed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, in memory of Democratic Congressman Bruce Vento of Minnesota, another official who was an advocate for the poor. The act was reauthorized in January 2002.


In its original (1988) form, the McKinney-Vento Act sought to require state and local governments to implement aid programs for the homeless. In most cases, the act conditioned the awarding of federal funds on the receipt of matching funds from other sources. The act defined homelessness and created the Interagency Council on the Homeless, an independent agency within the executive branch of the government whose purpose was to coordinate and monitor federal programs for the homeless. Among the provisions authorized by the act were an emergency food and shelter program, a program for grants to nonprofit agencies seeking to create and operate emergency shelters, programs for the development of low-cost housing assistance and supportive services for those with mental illness or other disabilities, and programs requiring federal agencies to identify and make available surplus properties for the use of entities seeking to serve homeless people. Although the act mandates that states take the actions described, the awarding of funding in amounts sufficient to carry out the act's requirements has been uncertain. This uncertainty has become more pronounced as the federal budget has tightened.


Some of the act's provisions have been strengthened in the years since its passage, in particular those concerning the education of homeless children. Under the act's original provisions, states were eligible for grants to aid local school districts in making sure homeless children received the same educational opportunities as other children. The McKinney Act was reauthorized in 2002 as part of President George W. Bush's education bill (No Child Left Behind Act of 2001).

The amended act mandated that states provide "equal access to the same free, appropriate public education" to "each child of a homeless individual and each homeless youth" (Subtitle B, Sec. 721). The act also required that homeless children be integrated into the mainstream school population and that states ensure that any residency requirements or other laws that would act as a barrier to enrollment or success of homeless children in schools be revised to remove those barriers. The revised McKinney-Vento Act also required that each state make plans to ensure that homeless children be given the opportunity to achieve the same newly created academic standards as other children in the state. Though the act required the federal government to provide funding to the states to carry out those mandates, the availability of sufficient funds has depended on the budget passed by Congress and signed by the president.


The McKinney Act's provisions have an uncertain future regarding the question of whether it is appropriate for the act to be used to fund special schools exclusively for homeless children. Such schools existed in a few places in the United States; however, successful court challenges have resulted in the limitation of plans for further development of exclusive schools. Other issues presented by the revised act's provisions included the need for transportation services for homeless children so they will be able both to attend school and to remain in the same school regardless of moves made necessary by their homeless condition, both of which are required by the act. The act also required schools to enroll homeless children immediately, even if they are unable to present the documents generally required prior to enrollment, such as school and medical records. It is likely, however, that these provisions will be challenged in court.

The McKinney-Vento Act is the basis for the federal government's attempts to address the persistent problem of homelessness. Although the act's provisions present some problems, it remains the best source for assistance available to the homeless at the federal level.

See also: Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965.


Kozol, Jonathan. Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America. New York: Fawcett, 1989.


Department of Housing and Urban Development. <>.

National Coalition for the Homeless. <>.

Statistics on Homelessness

Melanie B. Abbott

Homelessness tripled during the 1980s.

About 3.5 million people, 1.35 million of them children, are likely to experience homelessness in a given year.

As many as 20 percent of people seeking emergency shelter are turned away due to lack of resources.

In 1993, there were two million fewer low-rent homes on the market than there had been in 1973because they were demolished or abandoned or because their prices increased.

In Miami, there is a seven-year wait for public housing.

In 1995, 36 million Americans lived in poverty.

Fourteen million families have critical housing needs. In 2002, families with children made up 41 percent of the urban homeless population.

Fifty percent of homeless women and children are fleeing abuse.