A Brief Guide for Teachers and Schools
Anastasia sleeps on her friend’s couch and borrows her friend’s clothes to wear to school. Her dad kicked her and her mom out of the house after a fight that turned physical. She’s unsure where her mom is staying, but her mom assures Anastasia that she’s fine.
Diego lives with his parents and his dog in a bedroom illegally subleased to them by other renters after his parents lost their suburban home due to a job layoff and illness. He hides his dog when the landlord comes around because pets are not allowed.
Fredrick lives with his two brothers, one sister, and mom in a motel room after a bad storm three months ago made their old house unlivable. He attends high school in a different school district because the storm also destroyed his old school. Fredrick worries about what will happen to his family because his mom’s place of work has not reopened following the storm.*
These young people, though their circumstances differ, have one thing in common—they all meet the federal definition of homeless youth under guidelines spelled out by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.1 Although this act has been in place since 1987, the act and its implications for schools are not as widely known as they should be among educators and administrators. The McKinney-Vento Act, including revisions made during its reauthorization in Title IX, Part A, of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA, 2015),2 defines youth experiencing homelessness in a far more expansive way than traditional conceptualizations. We offer details below, but in brief, the act defines homelessness as any student without “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”3 It also provides legal guidelines and funding that can be used to help improve schooling experiences for youth who are homeless. Although McKinney-Vento primarily focuses on protections related to students in preschool through high school, the revisions as part of ESSA also lay the foundations for college access, and higher education practitioners have begun to build similar protections.4 Since the federal protections are more clearly outlined for students in high school or lower grades, we focus primarily on summarizing that information in this article. However, our sidebar on the right includes more information for higher education practitioners.
We believe that educators, administrators, and staff members play important roles in the lives of students experiencing homelessness. Our goal is to provide educators with information and tools† as they continue their essential work of educating all students. In this article, we give an overview of student homelessness and examine the federal guidelines that frame how schools and postsecondary institutions serve students experiencing homelessness. Federal law outlines legal rights for students, but these mandates should only be considered a minimum standard when providing support. Additionally, we discuss the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic strife on students and families experiencing homelessness. Finally, we provide promising practices that encourage academic engagement and success for students who are homeless.
National Statistics on Student Homelessness
Identifying the exact number of students experiencing homelessness is difficult. These students tend to be highly mobile and experience a significant amount of shame that reduces the likelihood of reporting their housing status.5 Schools and districts have increasingly created processes that allow for gathering more accurate information from students. However, available estimates likely underestimate the reality of student homelessness.
Before the pandemic, families with children constituted 30 percent of the homeless population in the United States.6 At the start of the 2017–2018 school year, 1.5 million students in the US reported experiencing homelessness. This is a 15 percent increase since the 2015–2016 school year and more than double the number of students who were homeless (590,000) in 2004–2005.7 In large cities, the percentages of student populations experiencing homelessness are even larger than the national averages. In New York City, for example, one in ten (114,085) youth experienced homelessness during the 2018–2019 school year.8 In addition, researchers at the University of Chicago who gathered data in 2016 and 2017 estimate that 700,000 young people between ages 13 and 17 experience some form of homelessness annually, including running away and being kicked out of their homes.9 That’s one out of every 35 people in this age group experiencing homelessness in recent years. Young people of color, LGBTQ youth, students in special education, and pregnant/parenting teens all disproportionately experience homelessness. Many urban schools and districts we have worked with report rates of student homelessness between 10 and 20 percent.
Seventy-five percent of children experiencing homelessness live doubled-up with other families. Living doubled-up means that multiple households are living in a space designed for one family as a result of economic crises and out of necessity; these living arrangements are not considered stable or adequate housing.10 For example, we have worked with three families—involving a total of 10 people—who lived in a small two-bedroom apartment. The next highest percentage of students experiencing homelessness live in shelters (15 percent); these children are disproportionately young, with 10 percent under age 1.11
Experiencing homelessness negatively impacts students’ schooling outcomes. Compared with traditionally housed peers, attendance and graduation rates are lower, as are academic achievement rates in reading and math. Also, special education placement rates are higher, and incidences of multifaceted trauma are much higher.12 Even after students regain stable housing, their academic outcomes may continue to lag behind those of their peers who are consistently housed.13
Research on the impact of homelessness on educational access and outcomes, as well as advocacy on behalf of students experiencing homelessness, prompted the federal government to broaden its definition of student homelessness. The emphasis on any student without “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” includes children and youth who:
- share the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or similar reason (doubled-up);
- live in motels, hotels, and campgrounds;
- reside in emergency or transitional shelters;
- have been left in hospitals by parents (many young and homeless themselves) who see no alternatives;
- live in public or private spaces not typically used as housing;
- reside in cars, parks, abandoned buildings, train stations, or similar settings; and
- are migrants who experience the above housing situations.14
This expansive and inclusive definition of homelessness affords legal protections for children and youth who are without stable and adequate housing. Importantly, states, school districts, and schools are required to meet certain obligations, including:
- allowing students to remain at their school of origin even when they move outside of the school boundaries;
- reviewing policies at all levels (e.g., state, district, and school) to ensure that children and youth in homeless situations are not denied access to school;
- designating a homeless liaison in each school district who receives professional development and trains the school-site point of contact;
- supporting district efforts at the state level by gathering and posting data, providing professional development for liaisons, and responding to inquiries;
- allowing children and youth who are homeless to enroll immediately, regardless of health records, transcripts, proof of residency, dress codes, fees and fines, application deadlines, or other paperwork;
- allowing unaccompanied youth to enroll without a parent or guardian;
- having homeless liaisons inform unaccompanied youth of their rights and independent status in relation to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA);
- using district and state funds for outreach and emergency/extraordinary assistance; and
- subjecting living arrangements and records to Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protections.15
Most of these requirements have been in place for more than 30 years, yet too many districts and schools continue to be unaware of their existence or how to fully implement them.
Thus, many children and youth experiencing homelessness continue to face barriers and challenges accessing educational services. This is especially true in districts and schools that do not have homeless shelters within their attendance zones and do not have many of the traditional, visible signs of a homeless population. And most importantly, this is an opportunity for better-informed educators to strengthen their advocacy for their students.
What Teachers and Schools Can Do
Homelessness for children and youth in the US is, of course, embedded in larger societal structures over which educators have limited direct control. We do not assume that educational shifts will resolve challenges involving adequate access to housing, consistent employment with living wages, and the many social issues related to housing insecurity (e.g., foster care, immigration status, domestic violence, mental health issues, and discrimination associated with race, sex, religion, and LGBTQ identities).
Even though we recognize these constraints, research consistently shows that many districts, schools, and teachers could do more to meet the needs of students and families experiencing homelessness. Increasing educational access and success has the potential to improve the long-term economic and housing stability of students as they transition into adulthood and start their own families. In this section, we provide an overview of promising practices emerging from our research.
Educate yourself and others about homelessness in your school community. An essential first step toward addressing the needs of students experiencing homelessness is to learn—about law, policy, populations, needs, resources, and best practices. What does student homelessness look like in your community? How many students experience homelessness in your school? How did COVID-19 change the economic context of the community your school serves? Did more students become housing insecure? In particular, are more families living doubled-up than in previous years?
This information is essential. Educators should be highly skeptical if current data suggest that no students experience homelessness at their school; consider seeking another source, such as the local branch of the United Way or a food pantry that may have insights into homelessness in the community. In conjunction with gathering accurate data, pursue systematic professional development—ideally this should be done with the entire school site so the response can be coherent and sustained. A one-stop, generic professional development session is unlikely to result in any lasting improvement to the school experience for students in homeless situations.
Integrate improved responsiveness to homelessness into school plans. School and district administrators typically make decisions about resources based upon explicit goals written in school plans. The reality is that we focus on what we measure and report. Just like goals for improving student achievement, the likelihood of accomplishing goals for homelessness responsiveness greatly increases when they are written into formal plans for school improvement. Including goals to improve outcomes for students experiencing homelessness also allows for tracking growth in this area. We also encourage teachers and administrators to advocate for students to receive the resources guaranteed by federal protections because these supports will be necessary to achieve the goals outlined in school plans.
Secure resources. States receive modest funding from the federal government that is authorized by the McKinney-Vento Act. Most states divide this money into subgrants that are distributed to school districts. Find out if your district has a McKinney-Vento subgrant. If so, learn where resources are currently being directed and work with the school improvement team to see if these expenditures match current needs. If the district does not receive the grant, find out why not and if there is a possibility of applying for one in the future. Even if there is not a subgrant, students are guaranteed the protections under McKinney-Vento, and the district is mandated to cover these costs (e.g., supplies, transportation, uniforms, etc.).
Collaborate and form partnerships. What resources are available in your local community? Many schools and districts collaborate with community agencies to help implement and expand the supports covered under McKinney-Vento. For example, a local service agency or church may provide backpacks with supplies at the beginning of the school year, or the uniform company may be willing to set aside a certain number of free uniforms for students experiencing homelessness. Some of these programs may already exist in the community.
Investigate trauma-sensitive school practices. We strongly encourage schools to explore trauma-informed approaches‡ to support students experiencing homelessness. To that end, we created a practitioner-focused book on how to navigate this process.16 Interestingly, a trauma-informed approach has been linked with improving outcomes for all students. Basically, this approach recognizes that what occurs in students’ lives outside of school influences how they participate in class, and it is beneficial for the culture of the school to be sensitive to the realities of students’ lives. Many elementary school teachers engage in practices like a morning check-in to begin each day by connecting with these realities. It is important to emphasize here that the type of trauma-sensitive school culture we advocate for is assets-based. This work is not about labeling students; it is about forming authentic relationships in order to develop trust, build on strengths, and better respond to needs.17
Provide academic and psychological support in addition to support for basic needs. In recognizing the trauma associated with housing insecurity, students will likely benefit from counseling and other related supports. The consistent movement inherent in precarious living situations can undermine students’ academic and psychological development—but with supports, students can reach their full potential. Although most educators are not trained counselors and many do not have the capacity to offer academic interventions like intensive tutoring, seeking academic and psychological supports can be another opportunity to coordinate with your school district and community-based organizations to identify resources available for students.
Prepare students for the transition to life after high school. Graduating from high school can be a challenge for students who experience housing insecurity; however, earning a diploma alone will likely not be enough for students to achieve financial security as they move into adulthood.18 McKinney-Vento requires schools and districts to provide priority access to college preparation programming for students experiencing homelessness. We encourage schools to work with students to explore how to find postsecondary opportunities and funding. In particular, students will need support in figuring out housing issues as they make decisions about higher education. For example, if the community college does not have housing, how does the student find a stable place to live? Does the four-year institution have year-round housing? If not, where will the student spend breaks?
The three young people whose stories we shared at the beginning of this article are positive examples of what can happen when schools recognize and respond to student homelessness. We return to them here.
A professor at the university Anastasia’s mom attended noticed something was amiss with her mom and found out that she had been sleeping in her car on campus while Anastasia stayed with her friend. He connected Anastasia’s mom to a women’s shelter, which, in turn, provided legal assistance and help with housing. Anastasia and her mom are now on the path to residential stability.
Diego graduated from high school while living with his family in a single room and, with assistance from his school, enrolled in a college where he is in his second semester and participating in athletics.
Fredrick’s community continues to slowly recover from the widespread natural disaster it experienced. His neighboring community’s schools, under the leadership of their superintendent, learned about McKinney-Vento and launched an integrated response to serving the students and families displaced by the storm that hit Fredrick’s town. He and his family are currently on the waiting list for a subsidized apartment, and his school year is going well.
Homelessness is one of the most life-altering experiences young people can have during their school years. It is, however, an experience that can be addressed and overcome. Responsive schools with caring and informed teachers are essential parts of the support infrastructure and process. Schools and districts that are educated about child and youth homelessness, have plans and procedures in place to respond, and are staffed with caring professionals can better support students and families experiencing this profound life challenge.
Ronald E. Hallett is a professor of education in the LaFetra College of Education at the University of La Verne and a former elementary special education teacher. Linda Skrla is a professor in the department of Leadership, School Counseling, and Sport Management at the University of North Florida. A former public middle and high school teacher and administrator, she was previously a faculty member and department chair at the University of the Pacific and a faculty member and associate dean at Texas A&M University. Hallett and Skrla are the authors of Serving Students Who Are Homeless: A Resource Guide for Schools, Districts, and Educational Leaders (Teachers College Press, 2017). Hallett also coauthored Addressing Homelessness and Housing Insecurity in Higher Education: Strategies for Educational Leaders (Teachers College Press, 2019).
*Although we have used pseudonyms, these three examples of young people experiencing homelessness are recent and real. Among the myriad families we have worked with, we selected these because their experiences in urban and small-town settings in three different states are common, but are not typically thought of as homelessness. (return to article)
†For additional resources on supporting students who are homeless, visit the National Center for Homeless Education, the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, and the National Center on Family Homelessness. (return to article)
‡For more on trauma-informed practices, see “Supporting Students with Adverse Childhood Experiences” in the Summer 2019 issue of American Educator. (return to article)
1. Statement of Policy, 42 US Code §§11431-11435 (2002).
2. Every Student Succeeds Act, Pub. L. 114-95 (2015).
3. National Center for Homeless Education, “The McKinney-Vento Definition of Homeless,” nche.ed.gov/mckinney-vento-definition.
4. R. Hallett, R. Crutchfield, and J. Maguire, Addressing Homelessness and Housing Insecurity in Higher Education: Strategies for Educational Leaders (New York: Teachers College Press, 2019).
5. W. Tierney and R. Hallett, “Social Capital and Homeless Youth: Influence of Residential Instability on College Access,” Metropolitan Universities Journal 22, no. 3 (2012): 46–62.
6. US Department of Housing and Urban Development, The 2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress (Washington, DC: 2020), huduser.gov/portal/sites/default/files/pdf/2019-AHAR-Part-1.pdf.
7. National Center for Homeless Education, Federal Data Summary School Years 2015–2016 through 2017–2018: Education for Homeless Children and Youth (January 2020).
8. R. Amin, “Number of Homeless NYC Students Remains Stubbornly High,” The City, October 29, 2019.
9. M. Morton et al., “Prevalence and Correlates of Youth Homelessness in the United States,” Journal of Adolescent Health 62, no. 1 (2018): 14–21.
10. R. Hallett, Educational Experiences of Hidden Homeless Teenagers: Living Doubled-Up (New York: Routledge, 2012).
11. Child Trends, “Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness,” May 8, 2019, childtrends.org/indicators/homeless-children-and-youth.
12. R. Hallett and L. Skrla, Serving Students Who Are Homeless: A Resource Guide for Schools, Districts, and Educational Leaders (New York: Teachers College Press, 2017), 11–25.
13. Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, Aftershocks: The Lasting Impact of Homelessness on Student Achievement (February 15, 2016).
14. Hallett and Skrla, Serving Students, 28.
15. Hallett and Skrla, Serving Students, 28–31.
16. Hallett and Skrla, Serving Students.
17. M. B. Spencer, “Increasing the Opportunity for Academic and Life Success: Trauma-Informed Schooling and Consequences” (annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Antonio, TX, April 27, 2017).
18. Hallett, Crutchfield, and Maguire, Addressing Homelessness.
[illustrated by David Vogin]