School counseling staff provide important support to students experiencing homelessness. The Every Student Succeeds Act recognized this role by adding requirements that counselors advise students experiencing homelessness and improve their readiness for college. SchoolHouse Connection’s new quick guide, written by a school counselor, provides practical tips and strategies for supporting students experiencing homelessness, helping meet their basic needs, and planning for graduation.
Quick Guide for Counseling Staff Working with Students Experiencing Homelessness
The legal definition of homelessness for public schools includes children and youth who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. This definition specifically includes children and youth sharing the housing of others temporarily due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or similar reasons; staying in motels or hotels due to lack of adequate alternatives; or staying in shelters, transitional housing, cars, and campgrounds.
Students may disclose information to counselors/counseling staff about their living situation that indicates that they are experiencing homelessness. For example, they might mention staying with friends temporarily, moving frequently, or being uncertain of where they will stay. In addition to these signs, the school district liaison or other school staff may inform counselors that a student is experiencing homelessness. This quick guide provides practical tips and strategies for supporting students experiencing homelessness, helping meet their basic needs and planning for graduation.
Step One: General triage/intake upon learning a student is experiencing homelessness
Thank the student for speaking with you and let them know your number one priority is to help them if they want help. You can provide support, resources, and a safe space, and get things out of their way so they can focus on school.
Also connect the student with clothing and food resources. Be sure clothes are the right size, and that food items meet the student’s needs. (For example, if they do not have a refrigerator or cooking area, foods must be non-perishable and ready-to-eat.) Provide space at school for the student to store personal items, and bags for taking hygiene, food and clothing items, as needed, in a discrete manner.
Step Two: Getting to Graduation
- Ensure as complete and accurate transcript as possible – award partial credit as applicable for credits earned due to transitions/homelessness (i.e. 0.25 credit for a class even if student left half way through a semester at another school and that school did not grant credit).
- Utilize credit recovery options as needed to provide student the opportunity to earn all credits in a given semester and/or recover missing credits (i.e. online platforms, contract work, credit for completion options, etc.).
- If student is in junior or senior year and transferred from a district that required fewer credits for graduation, petition for credits to make sure student is on track for graduation in the new district.
- Establish, at minimum, quarterly meetings re: graduation progress. Make sure student has copies of documents both physical and electronic (to a non-school email address) in case they switch schools. This helps them stay on track regardless of where they attend school.
- If student does not have adequate space/resources to complete homework outside of school, consider building a “study hall” period into the student’s schedule if applicable, or make arrangements for coming early or staying later (ensuring transportation is not a barrier).
- Facilitate connections to tutor(s), AVID, mentoring or other academic support programs as needed.
- If available, provide technology resources for student if needed (i.e. laptop, chromebook, ipad, etc.)
- Provide fee waivers for ACT, SAT, college applications, etc.
- Write letters of recommendation for the student and provide copies for future use.
- Provide scholarship information/resources (all opportunities, but point out those specifically for youth experiencing homelessness)
- If student is an unaccompanied senior and filling out the FAFSA for post-secondary opportunities, make sure to provide the student with the appropriate documentation re: verification of unaccompanied homeless status. Also provide guidance when the student fills out the FAFSA; or, if you don’t feel comfortable with this task, reach out to a local community college financial aid office, as they usually have employees who will meet with students for free regardless of where they plan to attend school and help them with the FAFSA process.
- If applicable, work closely with district special education staff to assist with all areas related to special education. Help students understand their rights with regard to their disability (including surrogate parents) and attend IEP meetings to support the student.
Important Points to Remember
- Your “solution” may not be what the student wants. This is the student’s journey – meet them where they are, provide options, and support the student in their decisions (as long as they are safe of course).
- “Homelessness” comes in many forms – don’t quantify the student’s experience based on your ideas of what homelessness looks like. Regardless of the physical living situation, students experiencing homelessness may have disruptions, inconsistencies, losses, etc. that are very different than their peers who do not experience homelessness.
- Be present and LISTEN to the student. Listen more, talk less – validate and make sure the student feels seen, cared about, and valued.
- Seek understanding of trauma and adolescent/young adult development.
- Practice grace AND accountability. Don’t act as if the student’s situation is a pass for low standards. This is an opportunity to help the student learn how to effectively handle adversity which is truly a LIFE SKILL.
Developed by: Dee Hurt, M.A., School Counselor