Amy Dunning completed her BSW at Belmont University before earning her MSW at the University of Denver. She worked as a family advocate at Warren Village First Step while in Denver before moving to Nashville, Tennessee. She is now a senior case manager with the YWCA where her focus is helping disenfranchised women move into stable housing, find employment and further their educations.
Over one million young people in the United States currently face homelessness, and many do not have an adult in the picture to provide guidance or assistance when it comes time to think about higher education. The federal government defines these unaccompanied homeless youth (UHY) as individuals who do not have “fixed, regular and adequate” housing and who are “not in the physical custody of a parent or adult.” Many of these youth have aspirations to attend college, yet lack the support and awareness of resources needed to move their dreams into reality.
This number is likely underestimated, as many homeless youth do not realize they qualify or are too ashamed to admit their living situations. The good news is that many resources and programs are available to make higher education attainable for students who need help. The guide below highlights challenges commonly faced and provides information on resources for those trying to earn a degree while battling homelessness.
While reasons for being homeless are varied and every situation is unique, researchers have identified three main reasons for homelessness among potential college students.
Homeless youth are typically portrayed in the media in one of two ways. In the first, homeless youth are shown to be burnouts that – despite being given countless chances to succeed – throw it all away for a fast life on the streets. The second version nearly always involves the tale of an underdog, who against all odds is the valedictorian of his or her school and goes on to attend an Ivy League college and change the world. While there are small percentages of homeless youth who fall into such categories, the majority of these students are seeking the middle ground. They are often motivated, good students who have hopes and dreams yet are ashamed of their circumstances and lack knowledge of resources to help them be successful. The section below dives into a few profiles of homeless youth.
Many students have specific dreams about their future from an early age. For homeless students, these can be derailed after unforeseeable family crises. Whether dealing with parents losing their jobs, passing away, or leaving home, homeless learners experiencing these scenarios often end up in transitional housing and struggle to realize their initial goals. Students who fall into this category are usually those who work during the summers to save money for college, proactively learn everything they can to make themselves competitive during high school, achieve high scores on ACT/SAT examinations, and gain admittance to a college to help them achieve aspirations.
Students who are motivated to succeed don’t stop being proactive once they enter college. With so many new things to learn outside of the classroom, many homeless students get to know their financial aid and academic advisors to learn about all the resources available to them. Examples include work-study programs, food banks, low-cost healthcare, or local mentors in their field of study. Motivated homeless students may seek out internships during their last two years, allowing them to gain valuable real-world experience and have a competitive edge when it comes time to apply for jobs once they graduate.
Prospective homeless college students who have never known anything but a transitory lifestyle often strongly believe education provides a way out of their current situation. Whether abandoned, forced to move out of their family home due to repeated conflicts, or a runaway, many homeless youth bounce between family members and friends. While likely no one in their family attended college, they may have observed vast differences in the incomes and lifestyles of their friends’ educated parents versus their own.
The biggest issue these students face is staying focused on their high school studies in order to gain entrance to a postsecondary institution. In the absence of parents or guardians to guide them, many will turn to teachers or friends’ parents for advice and mentorship to keep them on the right path, or to provide recommendation letters highlighting their determination and development throughout high school.
Many prospective homeless students are aware of their impoverished backgrounds from an early age. Whether doing what they can to help out or eventually leaving home to support themselves, many carry shame about their financial and residential circumstances. Common behavior may include being vague about where they live, sleeping in libraries or living out of their cars. Homeless students often think of college as the start of a new life, but harsh realities of their earlier lives may sometimes carry over into college, leaving a feeling of hopelessness at times.
Thankfully, many universities are now putting systems in place to help faculty and administrators understand how to best serve these populations. College advisors can reassure homeless students they aren’t alone in their endeavors and remind them it’s never too late to redirect their futures. They can also provide helpful lists of on-campus and local resources to facilitate success, including information about free counseling services to help students work through their feelings of shame.
Dell Scholars Program. Through the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, the Dell Scholars Program provides $20,000 to winners over the course of six years, in addition to tutoring, networking and technology resources. The scholarships are awarded based on demonstrable financial need and at-risk status.
Gates Millennium Scholars. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, GMS provides scholarships for low-income, minority students. The 1000 annual scholarships may be awarded to African American, Hispanic, Native American, native Alaskans and Pacific Islanders and will supply winners a full-ride scholarship to college.
Horatio Alger Association. The Horatio Alger National Scholarship Program provides up to $22,000 in scholarship funds to students who demonstrate critical financial need and who have “faced and overcome great obstacles in their young lives.” Students from all 50 states are eligible, and winners also receive an all-expense paid trip to Washington D.C. to attend the National Scholars Conference.
National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY). A minimum of two $1,500 scholarships are awarded annually to students who are currently struggling with or who have experienced homelessness in the past. Scholarships may be put toward tuition, fees, books and prep courses, and are given out in October of each year.
O Wines Opportunity for Success Scholarship. Next open in the 2016-17 academic year, this scholarship awards $20,000 over four years to low income, in-need, capable female students who have filled out their FAFSA® forms and have a minimum of 3.2 GPA.
Simon Youth Foundation. SYF has awarded more than $9.6 million to at-risk youth pursuing secondary education since 2000. Many of the foundation’s scholarship winners will be the first generation in their families to graduate college, and may apply the funds to the two- or four-year institution of their choice.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. By providing funding to schools, the Scholarships for Disadvantaged Students program provides scholarships to full-time students of health profession and nursing programs coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. Interested applicants should check with their schools to determine if they participate in the program, and apply though the financial aid office.
Volunteer of America. The VOA eastern Washington and northern Idaho chapter has two scholarships designated specifically for homeless students and those formerly homeless who are pursuing secondary education. Scholarship recipients in the Crosswalk program also receive mentoring and education to help them reach their goals in all facets of their lives, from time management to building confidence.
Winners for Life. WFL offers scholarships each year for at-risk and underprivileged teens looking to pursue an education. The foundation grants 50 scholarships each year to at-risk youth; interested students may find application information through their school’s financial aid offices.
1. Students must fill out the FAFSA® forms
2. During the application process, students should indicate on the form that they fall under the “special circumstances” category and cannot provide their parents’ information.
3. Students should immediately follow up with their school’s financial aid office to determine if any additional documentation or information is needed. Some examples that financial aid offices may require include:
To qualify for SAT and college application fee waivers, a student must meet at least one of the following guidelines:
Amy Dunning, MSW and senior case manager with the YWCA, imparts her advice to those students who may be struggling with homelessness.
For my clients, the biggest barriers seem to be lack of childcare, coordination of class and work schedules, and access to the technology needed to complete class work. Most students or prospective students experiencing homelessness can’t afford to attend school full-time without having a job of some sort to pay the bills. In many workplaces, coordinating work schedules around a student’s class schedule just isn’t an option (particularly in the types of jobs most homeless individuals without a college degree have – shift work with rotating schedules, temporary jobs, etc.).
Childcare also presents a huge barrier for parents who are enrolled in college courses, as most classrooms don’t approve of bringing children to class, and childcare costs are often unaffordable to those with limited income.
Access to technology is a barrier my clients seem to be encountering more and more as learning environments become more heavily reliant on online platforms, or require students to do work requiring internet access outside of class time. Typically, emergency shelters don’t have Wi-Fi, and only some have computers for residents to access, which makes completing work at night difficult for those students who may be residing in shelters. One of my clients often ends up in her car at the McDonald’s parking lot late at night, sending in last minute online contributions to her group projects using their free Wi-Fi.
Obviously financial aid is the most heavily utilized resource for students experiencing homelessness, as they typically qualify for Pell grants, Hope scholarships, and other federal and state financial aid funds.
The Department of Human Services provides limited childcare subsidies for individuals who are in need, a program many of my clients utilize to help pay for childcare while in school, as well as utilizing their other services, like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Families First, and food stamps.
Clearly, when discussing homelessness, housing is generally the biggest concern, so that’s the area in which most folks need referrals. Often there are many local programs geared toward providing housing and supportive services. Other types of organizations prospective homeless students may find in their area include those which help students facing financial obstacles by providing resources to assist with debt reduction, building credit, and much more: all crucial for students who are trying to make things work on very little income. Local churches also sometimes provide resources for individuals experiencing homelessness, including sack lunches, bus passes and gift cards for groceries and gas.
Working with clients who are pursuing education while experiencing homelessness, I’m continually impressed at how much they have to juggle. I think of times I complained about the stress of finals during college, and I had a stable place to live, no children and a lot of support from my family, so I can’t imagine the stress students who are homeless must feel. However, I’ve seen that for these students, the payoff of pursuing an education can be huge. A former client went from working a part-time minimum wage job at Pizza Hut during school to make ends meet to completing a fairly brief IT training program and getting an incredible entry-level job in the field making $45,000 a year. The incredible amount of effort she put in for that year changed the course of her life and career. Additionally, I’d advise students to reach out to organizations or federal programs that can help them.
I think many individuals think education simply isn’t an option for them, and that’s usually not the case – they may be surprised by all the resources available to them.
As identified at the beginning of this guide, youth are considered homeless if they lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence and are not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian. Students who meet these requirements have access to many resources that make attending a college or university an attainable goal. Answer true or false for each question below, and mouse-over the question to see if you were right.
Students who qualify as homeless youth can receive price reductions and waivers for all of these fees. College Board is responsible for administering AP and entrance exams and has information on how to get these costs waived. CB also provides up to four Request for Waiver of College Application Fee forms for qualified students.
To qualify as an independent on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, students must be classified as an unaccompanied homeless youth (UHY). This means they do not live with a parent or guardian; have no fixed, regular and adequate housing; and are 21 years old or younger when applying for aid.
The U.S. Department of Education will first send any information about financial aid to a student’s email address. A mailing address is only needed as a backup, and students can use the address of the college(s) to which they are applying.
More and more universities are beginning to offer year-round dormitories for homeless youth or students undertaking summer classes. Many resident life departments can give homeless students information about local organizations able to provide housing during these times. Students can also receive guidance about acquiring an off-campus apartment that isn’t dependent on school calendars.
Guidance and education counselors should receive training on resources pertaining to homeless youth. Even if they don’t have exact answers, the McKinney-Vento Act specifies that every school district in America must have a local homeless education liaison to provide assistance to homeless students.
Money received from the federal government in the form of grants, work-study funds, or loans can be used to cover any direct costs, including tuition, fees, transportation, books, supplies, and room and board. It can also be used for related costs such as technology or childcare.
In addition to myriad resources available directly through colleges and universities, many independent nonprofit organizations provide assistance to homeless college students. One such example is the Colorado Taskforce on Higher Education for Unaccompanied Youth Experiencing Homelessness, which helps students with costs they may not have considered previously, such as student IDs, welcome kits, or extra long sheets for dorm-style beds. Even if a school doesn’t have a particular resource, an administrator will likely have a list of local nonprofits providing services.