Five Facts Educators Need to Know About Student Homelessness — And Actions to Take

Evictions, natural disasters, pandemic-related job loss, and increased family stress have the potential to cause unprecedented levels of child, youth, and family homelessness this school year. Here, we break down five facts every educator needs to know about child and youth homelessness and action steps for supporting students as they return to the classroom. For more awareness and training resources, click here.

1. Homelessness is in Your School And School District, Even If You Can’t See It.

Family and youth homelessness is often hidden. Many communities lack shelters for families and youth, and families and youth may fear shelter — especially during COVID-19. For these reasons, homeless families and youth are much more likely to stay temporarily with other people, or in motels, than in shelters. These situations are often unstable, and sometimes unsafe. Of 1.4 million children and youth experiencing homelessness reported by school districts in 2018–2019, 77% were staying with others due to lack of alternatives when they were first identified, while only 12% were in shelters. The prevalence of youth homelessness is the same in urban, rural, and suburban areas.

Schools provide the education, safety, stability, and services necessary for children and youth experiencing homelessness to cope and avoid homelessness as adults. However, in order to benefit from targeted educational protections and services, children and youth must first be identified as experiencing homelessness. Every educator has a role to play in identifying students experiencing homelessness.

2. There is No Educational Equity Without Addressing Homelessness in Schools.

Student homelessness is an equity issue intrinsically tied to challenges, traumas, and outcomes of our most underserved students. Students of color, pregnant and parenting students, and LGBTQ students are significantly more likely to experience homelessness. In high school, Black students are 2.25 times more likely to experience homelessness, and Hispanic students are 2 times more likely to experience homelessness, than their white peers. Heightened racial violence also contributes to loss of trust with public schools, exacerbating challenges in re-engaging students who are homeless. Students with disabilities and English learners are also disproportionately represented among students experiencing homelessness. For many students, these experiences and identities intersect; once they become homeless, they face unique barriers to enrolling, attending, and succeeding in school.

We cannot achieve education’s promise of “opportunity for all” without prioritizing children and youth who experience homelessness, and educators must implement federal protections for homeless students with a trauma-informed and anti-racist approach.

3. It Takes More than Housing to Solve Homelessness.

Homelessness is an indicator of many vulnerabilities, inequities, and traumas that a child might experience. Contributing factors include job loss and underemployment, evictions and lack of affordable housing, natural disasters, domestic violence, international violence, addiction, mental illness, low educational attainment, generational poverty, and systemic racism. For youth who experience homelessness on their own, abuse, neglect, abandonment, and family conflict are causal factors.

Educators can respond to child and youth homelessness by understanding the full range of traumatic events that lead to and accompany loss of housing, and adopting a trauma-informed approach to identification and services. At the same time, a comprehensive approach to community partnerships — including housing and emergency rental assistance, but also health care, counseling, transportation, nutrition, credit accrual, mentorship, and more — are needed to ensure that students experiencing homelessness and their families are supported in their education, which they ultimately will need to obtain and sustain housing.

4. Under Federal Law, State and Local Education Systems Have a Legal Obligation to Provide Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness Education and Supportive Services — and with Passage of the American Rescue Plan Act, There Are Unprecedented Resources To Do So.

The McKinney-Vento Act provides rights and services to children and youth experiencing homelessness, including immediate enrollment, school stability, transportation, and more. Under the Act, every local educational agency is required to designate a liaison for homeless children and youth. The local educational agency liaison coordinates activities to ensure that homeless children and youth are identified, enrolled in school, and have the opportunity to succeed academically.

Both the American Rescue Plan Act Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund (ARP ESSER) and American Rescue Plan Act Homeless Children and Youth fund (ARP HCY) provide unprecedented funding to support the identification, enrollment, and school success of children and youth experiencing homelessness, supporting this work. Educators should make sure they understand the basics of the McKinney-Vento Act’s protections, and reach out to their local homeless education liaison and/or state coordinator to learn about additional training opportunities.

5. You Can Support The Unique Needs of Your Students Experiencing Homelessness Whether You Are An Early Childhood, Elementary, Middle, High School, or Higher Education Educator.

From prenatal to postsecondary, homelessness jeopardizes the health and development of children and youth. Public schools report homelessness in every grade, including preschool; the percentage of homeless students enrolled in each grade has remained stable over the last five years. Schools also have reported increasing numbers of unaccompanied youth (youth not in the physical custody of their parent or guardian) across grades. At every grade level, educators can provide age-appropriate support for children, youth, and families. The McKinney-Vento Act requires specific attention to young children, including ensuring that they are enrolled in Head Start, Early Head Start, early intervention, and preschool programs administered by the LEA. It also requires action to support high school students to prepare for college, and receive assistance obtaining documentation for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). By supporting the full continuum of learning, educators can help ensure the lifelong success of children and youth who experience homelessness.

To learn more about how you can support students experiencing homelessness this school year, review the educators’ resources here.

This is hub of expertise and stories to drive solutions around children, youth, and family homelessness. It is a project of SchoolHouse Connection.