A Light of Hope: How Schools Can Disrupt Homelessness

Maria Duarte,
Policy Associate

Each year, an estimated 4.2 million youth (13-17 year-olds) and young adults (18-25 year-olds) experience homelessness. The Voices of Youth Count from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago found that certain factors increase the likelihood of experiencing homelessness, including being Black and/or Hispanic; identifying as LGBTQ+; youth who are parents; and youth who do not complete high school and/or a General Equivalency Diploma (GED). The latter is the number one risk factor for homelessness – making these young people 346% more likely to experience homelessness when compared to their graduated peers. Thus, it is imperative to analyze the role schools play in supporting this population.

It’s no secret that youth and young adults experiencing homelessness often face many roadblocks impeding them from achieving success. One of the biggest challenges with providing services and supports to this population is simply identifying them since the definition of homeless is fluid and nuanced. For instance, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines homeless in four different categories and conducts “point-in-time” counts. The challenge with this definition is that it doesn’t account for unaccompanied youth and youth who do not live with family members. Moreover, youth are less likely to seek traditional shelters, and instead, are more likely to navigate between different living arrangements. As a result, the number of youths experiencing homelessness is often underestimated, and therefore many are never connected to the proper resources.

In an educational context, students experiencing homelessness face many challenges including difficulty enrolling in school, greater school mobility, and struggle to pay for uniforms, school supplies, and other school-related expenses. To date, these students have not been adequately supported in part due to the invisibility issue surrounding student homelessness. Many of them often feel disconnected from their peers and teachers and have a hard time fostering strong relationships. Without meaningful engagement in school and proper supports, they are 87 percent more likely to drop out of school compared to their non-homeless peers. This is alarming given that youth who do not complete high school are 4.5 times more likely to experience homelessness as adults.

How Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) can be Leveraged to Improve Outcomes

Prior to the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), little was known about the educational outcomes of homeless students – making it that much harder to provide targeted support in schools. Fortunately, ESSA now requires states to disaggregate data on graduation outcomes for students experiencing homelessness, which in turn will bring more attention and accountability to how these students are being supported. Data from the National Center for Homeless Education found that on average, only 64 percent of homeless students graduated high school on time – emphasizing the urgency of tracking student outcomes. Additionally, this year marks the highest recorded number of homeless students enrolled in public schools, which could potentially be a step in the right direction as schools continue to improve identification practices.

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act under ESSA is designed to support homeless students to enroll, attend, and succeed in school. Unlike HUD’s definition of homeless, the term “homeless children and youth” under the McKinney-Vento Act includes unaccompanied students and migratory children. Beginning in 2016, local education agencies (LEA) were tasked with identifying liaisons to carry out the duties of the Act. Liaisons typically work closely with families, schools, shelters, and community organizations to ensure students’ educational rights are protected and that their needs are met. However, due to the complexity of this issue, it is often difficult, and almost impossible, for just one person to address homeless students’ needs in schools. Nearly 90 percent of liaisons have reported they spend only half of their time or less on their responsibilities as liaisons. Equally troubling, 34 percent reported they are the only person in their district who receives training to help identify and intervene with homelessness. Further, key challenges were reported including lack of funding; lack of time, staff and resources; lack of community awareness; and inability to find safe places for homeless students before and after school. Combined, these challenges compromise the efficacy of the Act and raise questions about the many homeless students left in the dark.

The Path Forward

The implementation of ESSA has encouraged school leaders to think more deeply about the outcomes of students experiencing homelessness. This population needs a variety of concrete and emotional supports, and it will take a collaborative effort, not one liaison, to truly overcome this challenge.

For example, the Kansas City, Kansas Public School District was able to cut the number of homeless students from 1400 to half of that number by developing a community-based partnership with Avenue for Light, a nonprofit organization that offers support services. The districts McKinney-Vento Liaison and team coordinated with Avenue of Light to plug families into a “network of support agencies that assist with everything from paying utilities to finding work, food assistance, and counseling. Families also complete a series of classes on employment, housing, finances, and health care.” Additionally, families are provided with a navigator or caseworker. Due to the success of the program, other districts throughout Kansas and Missouri are hoping to replicate this model.

Perhaps school leaders should begin by: 1) Analyze current school policies and practices threatening students’ well-being, 2) Become intentional about asking themselves what type of institutional culture they are providing for students, 3) Create long-term goals, coupled with data to address student homelessness, and 4) Be persistent, as it will take time to see results. For example, it took Kansas City four years before they were able to make a dent in their student homelessness population and they still have a significant amount of work to do. Also, the importance of trust in this conversation and any plan developed to help students should not be underestimated. Many homeless students often struggle to identify themselves as homeless due to stigma, shame, and fear of going into the foster care system. The majority (67 percent) of homeless students do not feel comfortable talking with school staff about their housing challenges, and yet, despite this reality, many schools continue to prioritize security officers over school counselors. This practice could be a barrier to identifying homeless students as an overwhelming number of them (86 percent) have rated having someone to talk to or check in with for emotional support as very or fairly important.

Schools are strategically positioned to provide a haven and a light of hope for homeless students. The implementation of ESSA brings great promise to increase the number of homeless students receiving services, but until school leaders begin to eliminate threats to students’ well-being, and develop a culture built on trust and community, many homeless students will continue to feel disengaged and neglected – ultimately increasing the likelihood of them dropping out of school.


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.