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Understanding the Challenges Faced by Homeless Students: What Educators Can Do to Help

Understanding the Challenges Faced by Homeless Students: What Educators Can Do to Help

Educators are well aware of the impacts of poverty on students and learning. But, do you know how many of your students are homeless? This is a challenge being faced by more students than you might expect, and under new Every Student Succeeds Act requirements, increased focus is being placed on monitoring the academic growth of this specific population. Consider the following statistics from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development:

  • In January of 2018, there were 56,342 family households with children experiencing homelessness
  • The number of unaccompanied homeless youth and children in 2018 is estimated to be 36,361

When we think of homelessness, we often think of individuals living on the streets. However, the experience of homelessness is in fact much broader. According to the McKinney-Vento Act, our country’s primary legislation regarding education of homeless students, “A homeless child is any youth who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” This may mean a student is sharing the housing of others, awaiting foster care placement, or living (with or without their parents or other caregivers) in cars, motels, campgrounds, homeless shelters, bus stations, or other highly transient situations. It is that regular nighttime residence that defines homelessness, and for students facing it in any form, the impacts are significant.

In this post, we will discuss the signs educators can watch for to identify homeless students, understand how homelessness impacts learning, review the current legislation, and discuss what educators can do to support students in these situations.

Student Homelessness: Understanding the Impacts on Learning

Does the thought of your peaceful (or joyfully chaotic) home, comfy couch, and cozy bed get you through the long days? What if you didn’t have that sanctuary to look forward to? Now, consider the stress it would produce to not know where you will be sleeping tonight, much less two weeks or a couple months from now? This is the reality for students facing homelessness in any form.

For homeless students, the classroom could be the one safe, stable place in their day-to-day lives, an important tether to the safety and security of routine, and perhaps most critically, an essential support in the journey out of poverty and into a better situation. These students are being forced to deal with significant, difficult, and interrelated challenges outside of the classroom that inevitably impact academic performance and the ability to participate in instruction. Here are just a few of the challenges educators must consider homeless students might be facing:


Food insecurity is a very common consequence of homelessness. And the research on hunger and learning is clear—if kids aren’t properly nourished, they won’t properly learn. Continuing malnourishment can also lead to developmental problems and chronic health conditions. Exacerbating the problem, neighborhoods with high rates of homelessness and poverty more generally are often considered food deserts, with limited or no access to grocery stores and fresh produce.

Unintentional Injuries and Illness

Homeless students and their families often have limited access to healthcare or don’t have the means to pay for it. Thus, when these children experience an injury or become sick, it’s more likely to cause serious complications.

Economic Exclusion

Homelessness—and poverty more generally—limits the choices a person can make to achieve better health and improve their own situation. This is often referred to as economic exclusion, and it results in worse health outcomes for homeless and other high-poverty populations. This affects children in unique ways, causing acute issues that sometimes place students into special education categories.

Student Homelessness: Telltale Signs Educators Can Look For

It’s easy to see—the academic stakes of student homelessness are high, and that can put a lot of pressure on educators. The good news is that there is a wealth of resources available for homeless students and the educators working with them. In fact, the McKinney-Vento Act stipulates that students who are homeless are to be provided the same free education as other students, even providing identified homeless students automatic eligibility to Title I status and funding. Each state employs a state coordinator to ensure all districts comply. All districts are also required to designate a homeless education liaison who must help students enroll immediately and inform their guardians about available services (including healthcare and nutrition support), whether or not the student has previous school records or existing transportation.

However, the first step to accessing these resources is identifying the students in need of them, and that can be tricky. No parent or student wants to admit to being ‘between residences,’ let alone ‘homeless.’ Because families often try to hide their homelessness, many homeless students never gain access to available benefits and services.

Signs that a child is experiencing homelessness can range from subtle to extreme depending on the specific student and their circumstance, but these signs often present similarly to those of other significant issues like abandonment or neglect. Homelessness is a traumatic experience, and students dealing with it  could act out accordingly. Emotionally, these children may close in on themselves, becoming withdrawn, or gravitate towards the other extreme, becoming aggressive and defensive. Here are some of the warning signs to watch out for to identify homeless students in your school or classroom:

  • Wearing the same clothes day after day, or wearing clothes that are not consistently clean
  • Struggling to keep up with personal hygiene, possibly appearing to not have had a bath, shower, or haircut recently
  • Hoarding food that is distributed at lunch, on field trips, or during classroom snack breaks
  • Appearing to have medical and/or dental issues (even significant ones) that are not addressed, such as signs of rash, infection, persistent illness, pain, etc.
  • Often being late to school, or having frequent and/or extended absences
  • Carrying a backpack that is very full of personal belongings, but lacking adequate school supplies
  • Talking about not wanting to go home, or sharing vague stories of their living conditions or people they live with that carry negative connotations
  • Frequently moving from school to school, sometimes multiple times within a school year
  • Consistently failing to complete homework on time or at all
  • Difficulties getting in touch with parents, including failure to sign notes, permission slips, etc.

Student Homelessness: What Teachers and Administrators Can Do to Provide Support

With ESSA implementation beginning in 2016, there is more focus being placed on dedicated resources for homeless students than ever before. In addition to Title I designation and funding provision, ESSA accountability requirements stipulate that states report on homeless student populations specifically and put in place systems to measure and monitor these students’ academic growth. Title I makes dollars available for districts to provide services for homeless youth, including hiring special instructors and tutors, facilitating parent involvement, and funding supplemental after-school or summer programs; ESSA accountability requirements ensure that those programs are implemented effectively.

With this in mind, the number one need for homeless students and their families is to gain access to the services already in place that have been designed to address their needs. Here are a few things teachers and administrators interacting directly with students can do to make sure this happens:

  • Avoid calling attention to specific students. Arrange a private meeting to bring up any concerns.
  • Provide in-class time to complete homework, or work directly with students to set up a time when they can work at school in a quiet space.
  • Be prepared to address and teach subjects like basic personal hygiene and personal space skills, especially with younger students.
  • Respect the boundaries of students dealing with homelessness. Allow them to label their personal possessions or spaces if that helps them feel more secure.

Student Homelessness: Special Considerations for Students Working Under an IEP

At this point, it should come as no surprise that for children already identified as needing special education services, the stresses of homelessness can exacerbate learning problems. After all, transitions are often hard for children with exceptionalities—can you imagine anything more transitional than being without a consistent place to sleep every night? Here are several suggestions to support homeless students working under an individualized education plan (IEP), keeping in mind that homeless is just one manifestation of poverty, and many of these tips can also apply to special education learners facing poverty without homelessness as well:

  • Get a social worker onboard. The social worker can "follow" homeless students to different schools, coordinate with shelters, and provide school supplies and clothes.
  • Get a parent advocate involved. A social worker or other reliable person can help parents by providing a mailing address and phone number, coordinating reliable transportation to meetings, and offering assistance in regard to understanding their rights and the IEP process.
  • Be realistic. Realize that some absenteeism may be a reality for homeless students and that it could require two years to complete a grade level.
  • List summer school and after-school programming on a student’s IEP to make up for missed days that may cause a homeless student to fall behind.
  • Incorporate transportation within the IEP.
  • Consider including basic services as part of the IEP, such as remedial services or tutoring, counseling, provision of school supplies, participation in free or reduced lunch/breakfast programs, access to pre-k or other early learning programs, medical services, case management, relevant professional development resources for staff working with the student, agency coordination, and parent training.

Homelessness is a broad issue facing education, and one that presents itself in so many different ways. The conversations about this critical topic have already begun—in fact, it’s even made it’s way into popular media with Sesame Street recently introducing a homeless student in its cast of characters. As the conversations about homelessness in education continue, it’s important to consider the special education ramifications, because these students certainly require specific supports. However, it is very much a general education issue too, because poverty and homelessness can affect all types of learners. Homelessness can impact, exacerbate, or create student need – for educators, the key is to be vigilant in watching for the signs, aware of the impacts, and flexible in the response.

Interested in taking a deeper dive into the issue of student homelessness and exploring some of the many outstanding resources available for students, their families, and educators? Check out this blog post for a round up of some of the leading student homelessness organizations and resources.

winnie.oleary's picture
Winnie O'Leary

Winnie O’Leary has spent over 25 years in education, as a classroom teacher, school board member, a family advocate, special education teacher, curriculum writer and currently a Curriculum Manager for Edmentum. Her experiences have allowed her to work with districts all over the country where she finds something new and exciting every day.