Strategies for Success: Supporting Students Experiencing Homelessness

Published July 2020

Strategies for Success: Supporting Students Experiencing Homelessness, authored by Civic and sponsored by The Raikes Foundation, is based on interviews with educators in Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, Texas, and Virginia to identify strategies school and districts are using to successfully mitigate the challenges students experiencing homelessness face in attending and succeeding in school.

The report was written in partnership with Building Changes, a Washington State-based nonprofit, aimed at identifying replicable practices for schools on how best to meet the needs of their students experiencing homelessness. It services as an illustrative supplement to Building Changes’ Menu of Strategies, a working collection of research-based practices and recommendations to help schools and districts support students and families experiencing homelessness.

Over 1.5 million K-12 students were identified as experiencing homelessness in U.S. public schools during the 2017-18 school year. This is in addition to 1.2 million children under six-years-old who experienced homelessness in public early childhood programs in the same school year. Both of these numbers mark sizable increases over the past decade. Part of the reason for the increase may be due to schools and districts doing a better job of identifying students experiencing homelessness. Other factors, however, such as lack of affordable housing, persistent poverty, the opioid crisis, and increasing natural disasters contribute to this as well.

These millions of students experiencing homelessness are at the center of COVID-19 and systemic racism. Black and Hispanic high school students are more likely to experience homelessness than their White peers, significantly less likely to graduate from high school, and more likely to experience homelessness as adults. In addition, all students experiencing homelessness are particularly vulnerable to the dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools provide stability and food security for many students experiencing homelessness who do not have a place to ‘shelter in place’ or ‘stay at home.’

Data shows that high school students experiencing homelessness are five times more likely to go hungry than their housed peers. Additionally, a survey conducted by SchoolHouse Connection during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic showed that “mobile hotspots” and “funds for internet access and devices/technology” were among the most pressing needs of students experiencing homelessness in K-12 and postsecondary education.

Following school closures from the pandemic, liaisons were quick to find solutions for some of these issues. One school district offered ‘pay as you go’ phones for unaccompanied youth and hot spots for McKinney-Vento students without internet access. Other school districts have instituted curbside grocery pick-up, food delivery systems, and grocery store gift cards in response to the crisis.

Encouragingly, success stories throughout the nation show that with the right support, students experiencing homelessness can graduate from high school at the same rates as their peers.

Liaisons across the country are using robust McKinney-Vento homeless education programs to develop innovative supports for these 1.5 million K-12 students experiencing homelessness in the U.S. Some of these include basic needs and academic support; district nonprofit organizations; credit recovery programs; McKinney-Vento training; housing resources; cross-system collaborations; social and emotional learning; and transportation.

For example, Treasure House, a program in Spotsylvania County Public Schools, allows McKinney-Vento-identified families to ‘shop’ for food, clothing, and household needs once a month for free. Another program, Retirees Assisting with Transitional Students (RATS) in Fairfax County Public Schools, rehired retirees to drive students experiencing homelessness to school. 

These stories and many more validate the aspirations of those on the front lines of supporting such students: 88 percent of homeless student liaisons interviewed say they are optimistic regarding the potential of youth they work with to graduate from high school college- and career-ready.