Common Questions

Why focus on education? Isn’t this a housing issue?

Education is a critical but often overlooked strategy to address child and youth homelessness, and prevent it from reoccurring in the future. In fact, recent research found that youth who do not complete a high school diploma or GED are 4.5 times more likely to experience homelessness in the future than their peers who completed high school. Education is a critical factor in giving young people the opportunity to obtain stable employment, and ensuring that they do not repeat the cycle of poverty and homelessness that they experienced during their developmental years.

Schools are a source of caring adults, stability, and normalcy for students as they weather a traumatic and disruptive experience. As cornerstones of communities, they play pivotal roles in connecting children and youth who are experiencing homelessness to a wide array of services and supports.

In addition, schools, early childhood programs, and institutions of higher education are often the most consistent presence for youth and families during an otherwise traumatic and unpredictable time. As such, schools may be able to more quickly identify homeless students (or those about to become homeless), and help them to more rapidly access the services and supports they need to regain stable housing, and address other critical issues that may be contributing factors.

We know success is possible. Some school districts have made great progress in ensuring that homeless students graduate from high school, and move on to post-secondary education. By learning what works, and focusing on keeping students in school and on track, we can ensure that their homelessness does not jeopardize their opportunity for future success and stability.

Who is considered to be homeless?

Public schools, Head Start and Early Head Start programs, federally-funded child care programs, and institutions of higher education must follow a legal definition of homelessness that includes children and youth who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. This definition specifically includes children and youth living in shelters, transitional housing, cars, campgrounds, motels, and sharing the housing of others temporarily due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or similar reasons.

With few exceptions, the definition of homelessness used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) only includes people living in shelters, transitional housing, or on the streets or other outdoor locations.

The education definition of homelessness reflects the reality of family and youth homelessness. Emergency shelters in urban and suburban areas cannot meet demand, turning away requests for shelter. Many shelters place eligibility restrictions on families and youth; for example, some shelters do not admit families with adolescent boys, or do not allow unaccompanied minors. Rural and suburban areas may not have shelters at all. Families and youth may not have enough money to stay at a motel, or they may leave their homes in crisis, fleeing to the first available location. Youth who are homeless without an adult may be afraid to enter an adult shelter.

As a result of the lack of shelter, most children and youth in homeless situations stay with others temporarily, or stay in motels or other short-term facilities. According to the most recent federal data, of the children and youth identified as homeless and enrolled in public schools in the 2015-2016 school year, only 14 percent lived in shelters. Seventy-six percent lived with other people because they had nowhere else to go, 7 percent lived in motels, and the remainder lived in unsheltered locations. Moreover, a recent survey of homeless youth found that 94% stayed with other people, rather than one consistent place. These living situations are precarious, damaging, crowded, unstable, and often unsafe, leading to extraordinary rates of mobility.

How does homelessness impact academic outcomes for preK-12 students?

Homelessness has an impact on academic achievement over and above poverty; States that disaggregate graduation and drop-out rates of homeless youth have found higher drop-out rates and lower graduation rates compared to housed, poor youth. Homelessness is associated with an 87% increased likelihood of dropping out of school (the highest of all risk factors studied).

In addition, academic achievement in elementary school is slowed during periods of homelessness and housing instability. The achievement gaps between homeless and low-income elementary students tend to persist, and may even worsen, over time.

Are there similar protections for young children in early childhood programs, and youth in higher education settings?

Head Start and Early Head Start programs and programs funded through the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) are required to identify and prioritize homeless children and families, and remove barriers to their participation. Youth who are homeless and unaccompanied are considered independent students on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and many state and local institutions of higher education are taking steps to create campus based supports.

What activities will the campaign undertake to reach these goals?

Children and youth who experience homelessness are largely invisible in their communities. For too long, they have been absent from national conversations on education, equity, and achievement. The campaign will:

  • Raise awareness of the challenges faced by this population of students through social and other media efforts;
  • Lift up evidence-based strategies for success, including the many bright spots around the country, and encourage their replication;
  • Facilitate convening of local, state and national stakeholders from early care, education, youth services, housing, and other key partners to bridge silos;
  • Encourage the engagement of local, state, and national policy leaders to address this critical issue and;
  • Ensure the direct involvement and insights of students and parents in all activities.
Why did your four organizations come together to launch this campaign?

With ESSA requirements going into effect this year, this is such a critical time for a movement. Each of our organizations are committed to raising awareness and gaining more support to meet the needs of homeless students.  We decided to partner to pull together our efforts and unite behind our shared belief that homeless students deserve more attention, more allies and resources in order to break the cycle of poverty.

Why is the number of homeless students in the United States rising?

Homelessness is a complex issue with many causes. Two trends that have contributed significantly to the rise in family and youth homelessness over the past several decades are persistent poverty and a shortage of affordable housing. Domestic violence, unemployment, low education levels, physical and mental health problems, addiction disorders, and natural disasters also contribute to family homelessness.

Unaccompanied homeless youth include young people who have run away from or been thrown out of their home or been abandoned by their parents. Some primary causes of homelessness among unaccompanied youth are physical and sexual abuse by a parent or guardian, neglect, parental substance abuse, and extreme family conflict. Many youth experience homelessness at first with their families, and then later, on their own: a recent study found that the majority of unaccompanied homeless youth interviewed had experiences of housing instability that started in childhood or adolescence.

In addition, the rise in numbers may also be a sign that schools are getting better at identifying homeless students, and are therefore reporting them more accurately. This is a positive trend, since those students can then be connected to the right resources, and have access to the educational protections to which they are entitled under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Homeless students often hide their homelessness due to fear of stigma, being separated from their families or siblings, or being returned to an unsafe home environment. Improving the ability of schools to quickly identify these students is therefore critical, and a rise in numbers suggests that many schools are in fact getting better at doing so.

For more information and facts about student homelessness, visit the SchoolHouse Connection Common Questions page.

Isn’t this mainly an urban problem?

No! Homeless students live in rural, urban, and suburban communities across our nation. In fact, recent research from Chapin Hall found that youth in rural, suburban, and urban counties experience very similar prevalence rates of homelessness. In predominantly rural counties, 9.2% of young adults reported any homelessness while, in predominantly urban counties, the prevalence rate was 9.6%. Household prevalence of any homelessness among adolescents ages 13-17 was 4.4% in predominantly rural counties and 4.2% in predominately urban counties.

Given that the resources available to homeless students will be very different in an urban versus a rural setting, we will need to tailor strategies to these different demographics in order to be effective. For example, youth and families in rural areas may not have access to shelters, and are more likely to be staying with others temporarily (sometimes called “doubled-up” or “couch-surfing”). There may be more shelters for families and youth in urban areas, but sometimes these programs are full and must turn people away from services.

What educational protections do homeless students have?

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (referred to as the McKinney-Vento Act) is a federal law designed to remove barriers to education created by homelessness, and thereby increase the enrollment, attendance, and success of children and youth experiencing homelessness. The McKinney-Vento Act was passed in 1987 and was most recently amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015.

The McKinney-Vento Act requires that state and local educational agencies provide students experiencing homelessness with access to school and support for their attendance and success. Key provisions of the 2015 reauthorized Act include:

  • Children and youth who are homeless can remain in one school (including a preschool), even if their temporary living situation is located in another school district or attendance area, if that is in their best interest. Schools must provide transportation.
  • Children and youth who are homeless can enroll in school and begin attending immediately, even if they cannot produce normally required documents, such as birth certificates, proof of guardianship, immunization records, or proof of residency, or even if they have missed application or enrollment deadlines.
  • Every school district must designate a homeless liaison to ensure the McKinney-Vento Act is implemented in the district. The homeless liaison must be able to carry out the duties specified in the law. Homeless liaisons have many critical responsibilities, including identification, enrollment, ensuring access to early childhood and other programs, and collaboration with community agencies.
  • Every state must designate a state coordinator to ensure the McKinney-Vento Act is implemented in the state. State coordinators must have sufficient capacity to carry out their duties.
  • States are required to have procedures to identify and remove barriers that prevent homeless youth from receiving appropriate credit for full or partial coursework satisfactorily completed while attending a prior school, in accordance with State, local, and school policies. Local school district liaisons are required to implement these procedures.
  • Counselors must prepare and improve the college-readiness of homeless youth.
  • Both state coordinators and homeless liaisons must collaborate with other agencies serving homeless children, youth, and families to enhance educational attendance and success.
  • State departments of education and school districts must review and revise their policies and practices to eliminate barriers to identification, enrollment and retention in school of homeless children and youth, including barriers caused by fees, fines, and absences.
How did you choose the three goals and timelines for the Education Leads Home campaign?

Goal #1: Young children experiencing homelessness will participate in quality early childhood programs at the same rate as their housed peers by 2026.

Research makes clear that participation in quality early childhood programs leads to better life outcomes, including graduation from high school and home ownership. Yet homelessness creates barriers to accessing early childhood programs. In 2016, new policies went into effect for Head Start and Early Head Start programs; programs funded through the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF); and preschool programs administered by local educational agencies. These policies direct agencies to remove barriers created by homelessness, and, in the case of Head Start and CCDF programs, to prioritize the enrollment of young children experiencing homelessness.

In light of this new policy emphasis, we believe that by 2026, or before, we can ensure that homelessness does not constitute a barrier to participation in early childhood programs, as measured by the participation of children experiencing homelessness to their housed peers. Recognizing the urgency of early childhood development, we will strive to reach this goal even sooner.

Goal #2: High school students experiencing homelessness will reach a graduation rate of 90 percent by 2030.

In 2010, the GradNation campaign set a national goal of a 90% graduation rate for all students in the United States. The GradNation campaign has made significant progress toward this goal. We believe that students experiencing homelessness can and should achieve on par with their peers; therefore, we have aligned the high school graduation goal of the Education Leads Home campaign with the GradNation campaign. Our first cohort will be children entering kindergarten in the 2017-2018 school year.

Starting in the 2017-2018 school year, states and local educational agencies will be required to disaggregate graduation and achievement data for homeless students. Many states are already doing so. This new source of data will provide a baseline from which we can measure the effectiveness of our efforts.

Goal #3: Postsecondary students experiencing homelessness will reach an attainment rate of 60 percent by 2034.

More than 95 percent of jobs created during the economic recovery have gone to workers with at least some college education, while those with a high school diploma or less are being left behind. In order to afford housing and become economically independent, some form of post-secondary attainment is necessary.  The Lumina Foundation has adopted the goal of increasing the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees, certificates and other credentials to 60 percent by 2025. Recognizing that currently, there is a lack of quality data on the postsecondary enrollment and completion of students experiencing homelessness, and that significant barriers to both high school and post-secondary completion, we set a goal of a 60 percent postsecondary attainment rate by 2034 for homeless students. This goal will align our campaign with the efforts of other organizations working towards improved post-secondary attainment rates across the country.

How can people join/participate? What’s next?

Today marks the first phase of the campaign — raising awareness. We encourage anyone who is interested in learning more — practitioners, educators, policymakers, — to submit their email address to join our network. In addition, our respective organizations have many resources and tools — including interactive maps, research, best practice webinars, and more — to help people understand the scope of the issue, and take steps to assist. We are preparing additional materials and opportunities to engage and are looking forward to building and engaging with our community.