Common Questions

There are many common questions about children and youth who are experiencing homelessness. Schoolhouse Connection has answered some of the questions we hear the most.
Why focus on education? Isn’t homelessness a housing problem?
Education is a critical but often overlooked strategy to address child and youth homelessness, and prevent it from re-occurring in the future. In fact, recent research found that youth who do not complete a high school diploma or GED are 4.5 times more likely to experience homelessness as young adults than their peers who completed high school. Education is a critical factor in giving young people the opportunity to obtain stable employment, and ensuring that they do not repeat the cycle of poverty and homelessness that they experienced during their developmental years.

Schools are a source of caring adults, stability, and normalcy for students as they weather a traumatic and disruptive experience. As cornerstones of communities, they play pivotal roles in connecting children and youth who are experiencing homelessness to a wide array of services and supports.

In addition, schools, early childhood programs, and institutions of higher education are often the most consistent presence for youth and families during an otherwise traumatic and unpredictable time. As such, schools may be able to more quickly identify homeless students (or those about to become homeless), and help them to more rapidly access the services and supports they need to regain stable housing, and address other critical issues that may be contributing factors.

Is homelessness mostly an urban problem?
No. Homeless students live in rural, urban, and suburban communities across our nation. In fact, recent research from Chapin Hall found that youth in rural, suburban, and urban counties experience very similar prevalence rates of homelessness. In predominantly rural counties, 9.2% of young adults reported any homelessness while, in predominantly urban counties, the prevalence rate was 9.6%. Household prevalence of any homelessness among adolescents ages 13-17 was 4.4% in predominantly rural counties and 4.2% in predominately urban counties. Given that the resources available to homeless students will be very different in an urban versus a rural setting, strategies must be tailored to these different demographics in order to be effective.
Why do children and youth experience homelessness?
Homelessness is a complex issue with many causes. Two trends that have contributed to the rise in family and youth homelessness over the past several decades are persistent poverty and a shortage of affordable housing. Domestic violence, unemployment, low education levels, physical and mental health problems, addiction disorders, and natural disasters also contribute to family homelessness.

Unaccompanied homeless youth include young people who have run away from or been thrown out of their home or been abandoned by their parents. Some primary causes of homelessness among unaccompanied youth are physical and sexual abuse by a parent or guardian, neglect, parental substance abuse, and extreme family conflict. Many youth experience homelessness at first with their families, and then later, on their own: a recent study found that the majority of unaccompanied homeless youth interviewed had experiences of housing instability that started in childhood or adolescence.

How many preK-12 children and youth experience homelessness?
Public schools reported that 1,304,446 children and youth were identified as experiencing homelessness and enrolled in school at some point in the 2015—2016 school year. This is a 4% increase from the 2014—2015 school year. Thirty-four states reported increases in their homeless student populations between 2013 and 2015, with fifteen states experiencing more than ten percent growth during this same period and eight states experiencing more than twenty percent growth.

These numbers do not represent the total number of child and youth who experience homelessness in our nation, because:

  • The data represent only those children and youth who were identified as experiencing homelessness, and who were enrolled in public schools, pre-K-12
  • Under-identification of homeless students by public schools is a well-documented problem, caused in part by lack of awareness, lack of training, and lack of adequate dedicated staff time. The stigma and shame associated with homelessness, and general invisibility of most children and youth experiencing homelessness, also contribute to under-identification.
  • Homelessness creates barriers to enrollment and attendance in school; children and youth who were not enrolled in school will not be included in the federal school data.
  • The education data does not include all preschool-age children, or infants and toddlers; only young children enrolled in preschool programs administered by local educational agencies are included.

In addition to public school data, research suggests that youth homelessness is more prevalent than previously known. Research from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago found that least 700,000 unaccompanied adolescents (ages 13-17) – 1 in 30 – experience homelessness on their own in a year. In contrast, public schools identified 111,753 unaccompanied homeless youth in 2015-2016. This suggests that for every unaccompanied youth identified by schools, at least five are not identified.

Despite on-going challenges with identification, the rise in school numbers may be a sign that schools are getting better at identifying homeless students, and are therefore reporting them more accurately. This is a positive trend, since those students can then be connected to the right resources, and have access to the educational protections to which they are entitled under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Homeless students often hide their homelessness due to fear of stigma, being separated from their families or siblings, or being returned to an unsafe home environment. Improving the ability of schools to quickly identify these students is therefore critical, and a rise in numbers suggests that many schools are in fact getting better at doing so.

How many young children experience homelessness?
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, over one million children under six were estimated to have experienced homelessness. In fact, in the United States, infants under age one are most likely to enter shelter and transitional housing programs, followed by ages one to five. Almost half of children in federally-funded shelters are under age 6. Head Start programs reported serving 50,280 homeless children in 2014-2015. This is nearly twice the number of homeless children served by Head Start in 2007-2008 (26,200). See the Early Childhood in the United States: 50 State Profile to learn more about young children experiencing homelessness in your state.
How many college students experience homelessness?
Currently, institutions of higher education are not required to report data on students who are homeless. Therefore, unlike prek-12, there is no national number or estimate of college students experiencing homelessness. Some institutions of higher education are beginning to conduct research or collect data on students who are experiencing homelessness. For example, in February 2018, the California State University (CSU) published its Study of Student Basic Needs, the most comprehensive mixed-methods study of university students’ unmet basic needs and the relationship of such unmet needs to student success ever completed within a four-year higher education system. The study found that that 10.9% of CSU students reported experiencing homelessness one or more times in the last 12 months. In addition, in March 2017, Wisconsin HOPE Lab released the results of a national study on hunger and homelessness among community college students. The study, Hungry and Homeless in College: Results of a Study of Basic Needs Insecurity in Higher Education, found that one-third of community college students are hungry and 14 percent are homeless.
How can I find out how many children and youth were identified as homeless and enrolled in school in my state, or in my school district?
Under the McKinney-Vento Act, every state education agency (SEA) is required to the number of homeless children and youth on the SEA website annually. A list of state coordinators for the education of homeless children and youth, as well as state data profiles, may be found on the website of the National Center for Homeless Education.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Education now makes homeless data available for every local educational agency (LEA). Two years of that data may be accessed here. Please note that the LEA-level data uses a privacy protection methodology to prevent the identification of individual students in districts with low numbers of homeless students. As such, some data totals may differ slightly between various data sources.

Why is the number of homeless children and youth reported by schools higher than the number reported by homeless and housing agencies?
The U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) use different definitions of homelessness, as well as different methods of collecting data.

The definition of homelessness used by all public schools in the United States includes children and youth who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. This definition specifically includes children and youth living in shelters, transitional housing, cars, campgrounds, motels, and sharing the housing of others temporarily due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or similar reasons. This is the same definition of homelessness used by Head Start, federally-funded child care programs, child nutrition, and other federal family and youth programs.

With few exceptions, the HUD definition of homelessness only includes people living in shelters, transitional housing, or on the streets or other outdoor locations.

The education definition of homelessness reflects the reality of family and youth homelessness. Emergency shelters in urban and suburban areas cannot meet demand, turning away requests for shelter. Many shelters place eligibility restrictions on families and youth; for example, some shelters do not admit families with adolescent boys, or do not allow unaccompanied minors. Rural and suburban areas may not have shelters at all. Families and youth may not have enough money to stay at a motel, or they may leave their homes in crisis, fleeing to the first available location. Youth who are homeless without an adult may be afraid to enter an adult shelter.

As a result of the lack of shelter, most children and youth in homeless situations stay with others temporarily, or stay in motels or other short-term facilities. According to the most recent federal data, of the children and youth identified as homeless and enrolled in public schools in the 2015-2016 school year, only 14 percent lived in shelters. Seventy-six percent lived with other people because they had nowhere else to go, 7 percent lived in motels, and the remainder lived in unsheltered locations. Moreover, a recent survey of homeless youth found that 94% stayed with other people, rather than one consistent place. These living situations are precarious, damaging, crowded, unstable, and often unsafe, leading to extraordinary rates of mobility.

In addition to the differences in federal definitions of homelessness, the methodologies for education and housing numbers on homeless children and youth also differ. The education data is based on an academic year. Local education agencies report data to state education agencies, who in turn report data to the U.S. Department of Education. The U.S. Department of Education then de-duplicates the data, so that the final national number does not include children or youth who were counted more than once because they changed school districts.

The housing data is often based on a “point in time,” or PIT count. The PIT counts involve training volunteers to identify people who meet HUD’s definition of homeless, which means that they can be found outside, or are able to find space in, and meet the eligibility criteria for, a homeless shelter or other homeless housing program.

What do we know about the impact of homelessness on the development of young children?
Homelessness can harm children before they are even born. Research shows that pregnant women experiencing homelessness are less likely to receive adequate prenatal care than housed mothers, and their children are at increased risk for low birth weight. Low-birth weight has been demonstrated to jeopardize a child’s cognitive, physical, and social-emotional development. Homelessness in early childhood has been found to be associated with delays in language, literacy, and social-emotional development, putting children at risk for later academic problems. A 2015 study found that the younger and longer a child experiences homelessness, the greater the cumulative toll of negative health outcomes, which can have lifelong effects on the child, the family, and the community
What do we know about the impact of homelessness on the educational outcomes of preK-12 students?
Academic achievement in elementary school is slowed during periods of homelessness and housing instability. The achievement gaps between homeless and low-income elementary students tend to persist, and may even worsen, over time. Homelessness is associated with an 87% increased likelihood of dropping out of school (the highest of all risk factors studied). Homelessness has an impact on academic achievement over and above poverty; States that disaggregate graduation and drop-out rates of homeless youth have found higher drop-out rates and lower graduation rates compared to housed, poor youth.
What do we know about the impact of homelessness on the educational outcomes of college students?
At the post-secondary level, data show foster youth complete college to a lesser extent than other students, but little is known about college outcomes for homeless youth.
What barriers do homeless children and youth face to early care and preK-12 education?
In a life filled with uncertainty, loss, and deprivation, school can be a place of safety, structure, and opportunity. Yet homeless children and youth face unique barriers to early care and education. These barriers include:

  • Being unable to meet enrollment requirements (including requirements to provide proof of residency and legal guardianship, and school and health records)
  • High mobility resulting in lack of continuity and absenteeism
  • Lack of transportation
  • Lack of supplies and clothing
  • Poor health, fatigue, and hunger
  • Emotional crisis/mental health issues
  • For unaccompanied homeless youth, lack of a parent or guardian

These problems are compounded by lack of awareness of homelessness by early care and education programs, as well as lack of training and time for early care and education staff to provide identification, outreach, and other services.

When these barriers are not addressed, homeless children and youth often are unable to attend, or even enroll in, early childhood programs or school, which prevents them from obtaining the early care and education that is their best hope of escaping poverty as adults.

A recent study of youth who had been homeless in middle or high school found that:

  • 42% dropped out of school at least once; 60% said it was hard to stay in school while they were homeless.
  • 67% said they were uncomfortable talking with people at their school about their housing situation and related challenges.
  • Half said they had to change schools during their homelessness, and many did so multiple times. 62% of them said the process was difficult to navigate.
What barriers do homeless youth face to accessing and succeeding in post-secondary education?
Under the Higher Education Act, youth who are under age 24 are considered “dependent students;” they must supply parental income in order to be considered for federal financial aid. Youth who are homeless and on their own (unaccompanied homeless youth) live in extreme poverty and are not being supported by their parents; for these youth, the requirement to provide parental information is a tremendous barrier to apply for and receiving financial aid. For this reason, unaccompanied homeless youth are considered “independent students” under the Higher Education Act, if they are verified as such by certain federal program staff.

While this policy has led to some improvements in access to financial aid for homeless youth, barriers remain. A report released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in May 2016 found that:

  • Burdensome program rules can hinder the ability of homeless youth to access federal supports.
  • Extensive documentation requests can impede access to aid for homeless youth.
  • Annual re-verification of homelessness poses barriers for unaccompanied homeless youth.

In addition to financial aid challenges, this same report found that limited academic preparation, family support, and awareness of resources make it harder for homeless youth to pursue college. The lack of housing, both during academic breaks and throughout the year, is an additional barrier that can contribute to academic challenges and ultimately to dropping out of college.

A SchoolHouse Connection analysis of data from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) found that many youth do not have homeless determinations from school district liaisons or homeless service providers and face significant barriers to financial aid. The report also found that many applicants who request homeless determinations from their post-secondary institutions do not receive a determination.

What educational protections do preK-12 children and youth experiencing homelessness have?
Subtitle VII-B of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (referred to as the McKinney-Vento Act) is a federal law designed to remove barriers to education created by homelessness, and thereby increase the enrollment, attendance, and success of children and youth experiencing homelessness. The McKinney-Vento Act was passed in 1987 and was most recently amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015.

The McKinney-Vento Act requires that state and local educational agencies provide students experiencing homelessness with access to school and support for their attendance and success. Key provisions of the 2015 reauthorized Act include:

  • Every school district must designate a homeless liaison to ensure the McKinney-Vento Act is implemented in the district. The homeless liaison must be able to carry out the duties specified in the law. Homeless liaisons have many critical responsibilities, including identification, enrollment, ensuring access to early childhood and other programs, and collaboration with community agencies.
  • Every state must designate a state coordinator to ensure the McKinney-Vento Act is implemented in the state. State coordinators must have sufficient capacity to carry out their duties.
  • Children and youth who are homeless can remain in one school (including a preschool), even if their temporary living situation is located in another school district or attendance area, if that is in their best interest. Schools must provide transportation.
  • Children and youth who are homeless can enroll in school and begin attending immediately, even if they cannot produce normally required documents, such as birth certificates, proof of guardianship, immunization records, or proof of residency, or even if they have missed application or enrollment deadlines.
  • States are required to have procedures to identify and remove barriers that prevent homeless youth from receiving appropriate credit for full or partial coursework satisfactorily completed while attending a prior school, in accordance with State, local, and school policies. Local school district liaisons are required to implement these procedures.
  • Counselors must prepare and improve the college-readiness of homeless youth.
  • Both state coordinators and homeless liaisons must collaborate with other agencies serving homeless children, youth, and families to enhance educational attendance and success.
  • State departments of education and school districts must review and revise their policies and practices to eliminate barriers to identification, enrollment and retention in school of homeless children and youth, including barriers caused by fees, fines, and absences.

The McKinney-Vento Act contains many other provisions designed to support the education of children and youth experiencing homelessness. It is a critical tool in any effort to help these students meet their educational goals.

How can I find the contact information for my school district homeless liaison or state coordinator?
Under the McKinney-Vento Act, every state education agency (SEA) is required to post on the SEA website, and annually update, a list of liaisons’ contact information and duties. A list of state coordinators and their web sites may be found on the website of the National Center for Homeless Education here.

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