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OTs Role with Homeless Youth and Families

Updated: Sep 11, 2022

By Amy Pole


Millions of children are experiencing homelessness globally. Many of their basic necessities of survival, such as food, shelter, and safety, are compromised. This can result in threats to physical, cognitive, and psychological development during a critical time associated with learning and acquiring the living skills needed to transition into adulthood (Schultz-Krohn et. al, 2018). Deficits caused by homelessness lead to impoverished development of academic, play, and social skills. For example, children experiencing homelessness frequently change schools within a single school year, causing them to miss school for long periods of time or to miss key parts of the curriculum. They also may not have the opportunity to develop friendships and relationships with their peers and teachers.

Occupational therapists can intervene with homeless children, youth, and families in several ways.


  • Developing and improving handwriting skills. This can be done in a family shelter or in the school setting. Many students do not have access to services in school due to inconsistent attendance, so it is equally important to provide this service in the shelters so students do not fall even further behind.

  • Play and social skills development. This would be beneficial in a group setting to promote play and socialization as well as facilitate interactions during real life situations.

  • Learning coping skills and ways to promote self-esteem.


  • Developing financial literacy and money management skills. This can be done in family shelters in group sessions to help youth practice decision making and budgeting skills.

  • Practicing ways to locate safe and permanent housing. This can include providing the child with resources about safe places to go in their community.

  • Searching for employment and practicing interviewing skills.


  • Promoting occupational engagement. Many homeless parents experience high stress and lack of leisure time, so it is important to help promote engagement in occupations such as craft groups in the shelter.

  • Sharing resources on housing and employment. This can include helping complete necessary documentation or resume building and interview skills.

  • Promoting interactions between parents going through similar situations through prompted discussion groups.

  • Developing parenting skills.

The Need for Occupational Therapy

While occupational therapists can do many things for children and families experiencing homelessness, we are underutilized in working with this population globally. In the United States, there is a large need for services to support occupational engagement, health, and well-being for the homeless population. However, the National Coalition for the Homeless reports that the majority of homeless individuals have access to few supportive services (Schultz-Krohn et. al, 2018). There may be several barriers to services, including lack of funding, availability, transportation, or phone access.

In New Zealand, there is an unmet need for occupational therapists working with the homeless. There is no single government department that has a responsibility for the homeless population or for coordinating services (Lloyd et. al, 2012). In Queensland, there is a Homeless Health Outreach Team which is a multidisciplinary team made up of occupational therapy, medical, nursing, social work, psychology, welfare, and alcohol and drug clinicians. A person referred to this team must meet criteria for a mental health problem and/or substance abuse issue. The team can then work with the individual in a shelter or park. However, there is little emphasis on these teams working with children. They may help the adult to develop parenting skills, but there is not a direct focus on intervention with children and adolescents.

In the UK, homeless people scarcely have access to occupational therapy services and consequently do not benefit from the OT profession. The government has developed a working group with the aim of helping affected families and children out of homelessness and improving the quality of life of those affected. However, there was no input from occupational therapists (Business Bliss Consultants, 2018). The specific role of OT within the homeless population is not identified.

What Can We Do?

There are several organizations who are working to help homeless youth and families. Joining one of these organizations with the unique lens of an occupational therapist would provide them with a valuable asset. As occupational therapists, we can take into consideration the meaningful occupations of each individual and how to promote quality of life in this population.

  • National Campaign for Youth Shelter is a collaborative effort to build a grassroots movement demanding a national commitment to house all homeless youth and provide them with appropriate services in the US. Occupational therapists can get involved and advocate for OT as an appropriate service in these shelters.

  • Institute of Global Homelessness is a global movement to end street homelessness. It is a partnership between DePaul University (Chicago, USA), and DePaul International (London, UK), which provides direct services for people experiencing homelessness in the UK, Ireland, Ukraine, Slovakia, Croatia, USA, and France. OTs can provide valuable input into the direct services being provided.

  • Covenant House provides housing and supportive services for youth facing homelessness in 34 cities across the US and Latin America. They have a large focus on human trafficking. OT can be considered as a supportive service in this setting.



Business Bliss Consultants FZE. (November 2018). Role of occupational therapy for homeless people. Retrieved from

Lloyd, C. & Bassett, H. (2012). The role of occupational therapy in working with the homeless population: An assertive outreach approach. New Zealand Journal of Occupational Therapy.

Schultz-Krohn, W. & Tyminski, Q. (2018). Community-built occupational therapy services for those who are homeless. American Occupational Therapy Association.


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