Homeless Youth And Higher Education

Resources, Programs and Awareness for College Students in Need

A 2018 report by PBS News Hour found that more than 1.3 million primary and secondary students identified as homeless in 2017 – a number equal to all students living in the state of Virginia. This number continues to rise each year as more students and their families struggle with rising costs of living and stagnant wages. Many homeless students do not have an adult to provide guidance or assistance when it comes time to think about higher education. The federal government defines unaccompanied homeless youth (UHY) as those who lack “fixed, regular, and adequate” housing and who are “not in the physical custody of a parent or adult.” Though many of these youth aspire to college, they lack a network of support and an awareness of resources to see their dreams through.

Unfortunately homelessness doesn’t end once students reach college. A study published by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab and Temple University found that more than one-third of all postsecondary learners expressed insecurities about their housing while a further nine percent identified as homeless. Despite these disparaging numbers, help exists. The following guide highlights some of the common challenges of this population and offers information on resources for individuals trying to further their educations while battling homelessness.

Why Are So Many Students Facing Homelessness?

Reasons for homelessness vary significantly and every family’s situation presents unique obstacles, but researchers have identified three main reasons for homelessness among potential college students.

Lack of Sufficient Income

Data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that four percent of all parents were unemployed in 2017. Although this number has decreased since the recession (peaking at eight percent in 2011), unemployment isn’t the only factor: the absence of a living wage also weighs heavily on families. Information from Family Promise shows that approximately 66 percent of poor children and those who either identify as homeless or are at risk of becoming homeless live in families where at least one parent works. Workers who earn less than $12 per hour working full-time still fall below the poverty line of $25,100 for a family of four.

Annie E. Casey Foundation

Lack of Affordable Housing

The gap between minimum wage and the cost of housing has grown ever more expansive in recent years, while federal housing subsidies and the availability of affordable housing has decreased. Family Promise found that renters must earn an average of $21.21 per hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment in America, while only three affordable housing rentals exist on the market for every 10 low-income families seeking a roof over their heads.

Family Promise

Family or Parental Conflict

Many homeless youth cite the inability to continue living at home with family or relatives as the reason they now find themselves in unstable housing situations. According to Youth.gov, most reasons center around a long-standing issue rather than one that pops up quickly, with examples including violence, neglect, physical or mental abuse, or severe conflict. For these children, homelessness often feels like the lesser of two evils. A study by Journeys Home found that 62 percent of homeless students stated that conflict or a family breakdown drove them from home.

Study by Journeys Home

Resources and Help for Students Facing Homelessness

  • Year Round Housing

    Campus Resources

    • Resident Life Offices Recognizing the growing problem, more and more colleges now provide resources to help homeless students. Kennesaw State University’s Campus Awareness, Resource & Empowerment Services (CARES) provides year-round housing, temporary housing, a campus pantry stocked with both food and toiletries, one-to-one case management support, temporary work assignments, and scholarships to help students who previously experienced homelessness or are currently dealing with housing insecurity.

    Off-Campus Alternatives

    • Off Campus Support Office Even if the college you attend does not provide year-round housing, the off-campus support services department can help you identify affordable or subsidized housing options near campus. In many cases, off-campus housing ends up costing less than campus accommodations. Some schools may also help students find suitable roommates who can split the cost of housing and utilities. Other programs may work with realtors specialized in locating affordable housing.
    • Neighborhood Resource Centers and Youth Shelters As homelessness amongst young populations continues to expand, some cities have taken matters into their own hands and created resource centers. Some of these programs allow homeless youth to make first-come, first-served reservations to stay for up to one week at a time with no questions asked. Many nonprofits also operate full-service youth shelters for those who identify as unaccompanied homeless youth. Recognizing the unique needs of this population, many provide computer labs, printers, kitchen and dining areas, laundry, and showers. The YMCA’s Safe Place Services offers just one example of what to look for.
    • Federal Programs Passed into law in 2008, the Fostering Connection to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act provides federal funding to programs that ensure foster children receive the support needed to graduate. California created additional support mechanisms around this legislature, including support for those who need housing.
    • School-Sponsored Trips Over Breaks With a goal of giving back, many colleges now offer school-sponsored trips focused on community service during summer and winter breaks. Some may be free, while others require a fee, depending on the destination. Housing is provided on these trips and offers learners the chance to improve the lives of others through service.
    • PanHellenic Housing Some colleges allow housing used by fraternities and sororities to remain open to students during school breaks, meaning those who identify as homeless may be able to continue living in their Greek life accommodations throughout the year. Learners should ask if any restrictions exist and whether they need to pay a fee.
    • Stay With Friends If campus accommodations do not pan out and nearby off-campus housing doesn’t seem like an option, consider couch-surfing at your friends’ places during the holidays. While it may not be feasible to stay with a single friend the entire time, you may be able to set up a rotation that allows you to spend time with more people while still keeping a roof over your head.

    Online Resources

    • Cheap Apartments for College Students Students can search for apartments by state, region, and city at Sublet.com. Services include searching by price, setting a price cap, and responding to apartment-for-lease ads. Students can also place ads requesting apartments in a specific locale.
    • Resources for Homeless Youth – HUD Exchange The U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development offers resources, pertinent links, and publications as part of its Special Needs Assistance Programs (SNAP). Resources exist to inform and assist homeless learners and those who help them find housing. The homeless programs and initiatives include support for LGBTQ youth.
    • Student Housing Database American Campus Communities provides an exhaustive database of student housing it manages, with a special function for searching by college location, state, or community. Features include roommate matching, on-site management and maintenance staff, and a community assistant (CA) or resident assistant (RA) training program for student renters.

  • Food and Living Essentials

    Campus Resources

    • College and University Food Banks As postsecondary administrators gain a better understanding of issues facing homeless students, more resources become available. A number of schools now provide food banks and pantries free of charge for students who need access to groceries. Students run many of these programs and make their services available to both undergraduate and graduate learners. Michigan State University, for example, offers a year-round food bank with specific distribution times throughout the semester. The No Husky Goes Hungry program at the University of Washington offers a pantry, food security grants of $100, a summer produce program, free CSA shares through volunteering, and special bulk buy discounts.
    • Campus Nutrition & Dining Services If no campus-based food pantry exists, check with the cafeteria or dining services department for a list of local food banks. These programs often provide a range of living essentials such as daily meals and toiletries. The cafeteria may also run a program to supply homeless youth with leftover food each day.
    • Vouchers Though many colleges require students to purchase meal plans, not all learners use all their funds each semester. Rather than letting those unused swipes go to waste, programs like Swipe Out Hunger works to collect them and redistribute to food insecure students.

    Off-Campus Resources

    • Food Pantries and Prepared Meals Whether in a large metropolitan area or rural region, many food banks and pantries exist throughout the country and offer prepared meals for free or a low cost.

    Online Resources

    • Feeding America Feeding America is a network of 200 food banks across the country that distributes more than three million meals a year to needy Americans. The site includes a search tool for locating food banks by community or zip code; interested students can also search for volunteer opportunities.
    • FoodPantries.org Use this site to learn about non-profit organizations, food banks, and soup kitchens across the U.S. Participating organizations include ministries and fellowships, community food banks, and housing organizations. Search for food pantries by state or zip code.
    • College and University Food Bank Alliance The College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA) was founded by the Oregon State University Food Pantry and Michigan State Student Food Bank to provide support for new and existing college food banks across the country. The program was initially designed to help provide food to needy students who may not qualify for outside programs or who lack the ability to travel to them.
    • Campus Kitchen Project The Campus Kitchen Project operates community partnership programs that use volunteers from high schools, colleges, and universities to build on-campus kitchen space, recover surplus college food, organize drivers, and deliver meals to the needy within their communities. Website resources help students to develop campus kitchens in their neighborhoods.

  • Balancing Work and School

    Campus Resources

    • Academic Retention Centers ARCs exist to help alleviate some of the common stressors students face in order to improve dropout rates. These centers help students find flexible jobs, take advantage of work study programs, and create budgets to get a better sense of how to balance work and school. They also help students who are undeclared, require remediation, or are on academic probation create a plan and system to achieve academic goals one step at a time.

    Online Resources

    • From Homeless to Harvard: What This Student Can Teach You About Success Richard Jenkins’ story, featured on Inc., serves as a reminder and inspiration to those struggling with homelessness to never give up. After living in a homeless shelter with his mother and two sisters, Jenkins focused on how education could be the catalyst to changing his circumstances.
    • Find Out How One Young Woman Escaped Homelessness, Finished College, and is Now Helping Others Former college students Jessica Sutherland writes about the secret lives of homeless students and how she survived and thrived in college. Today she holds a master’s degree and founded Homeless to HigherEd, an organization that helps homeless students with care packages, cash scholarships, mentoring, and emotional support.
    • Balancing Work and School Mental Health America provides actionable tips for students who need to work while in school to provide for themselves but feel stressed trying to get everything done in a day.

  • Depression

    Campus Resources

    • Mental Health Centers Many unaccompanied homeless youth from difficult family situations may have underlying mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. Most colleges now provide basic health services, including counseling and mental health diagnoses, to enrolled students.

    Off-Campus Alternatives

    • Sliding-Scale Clinics and Counseling Services If a college doesn’t provide counseling, treatment, or services for depression and other health concerns, a number of off-campus alternatives exist. Students should look for local, community-based clinics and wellness centers that provide services for free or on a sliding-scale based on income. Some may not be able to accommodate all income levels, but these services will likely be more affordable that non-sliding scale centers. If a clinic cannot help, ask for their help finding one that can.

    Online Resources

    • Against Suicide This nonprofit provides an active Twitter that offers ongoing posts about issues that lead to suicide and how to combat them with positive behavioral strategies.
    • Reach Out ReachOut USA provides online peer support and anonymous forums where students can talk about confidential issues. Support forums include topics in depression, self-harm, LGBTQ, and romance. Resources link students with in-crisis support hotlines.
    • ULifeline ULifeline offers immediate contact to assistance with mental health issues that affect college students. Along with a 24/7 help line (800-273-TALK), the organization also assists students to locate resources on their campus that provide confidential counseling.

  • Basic Medical Care

    Campus Resources

    • Physical Health Center As noted above, enrolled students can frequently access basic medical services on campus. If a learner gets a cold or minor scrape, they can visit the campus health center to receive medical care. If a more serious issue arises, the health center can make a referral to a low-cost clinic.

    Off-Campus Alternatives

    • State-Based Homeless Outreach Programs Managed via the Department of Health and Human Services, these programs offer basic medical care, counseling, and referrals to emergency medical services to local homeless students.

    Online Resources

    • National Health Care for the Homeless Council The council comprises more than 10,000 physicians, patients, nurses, social workers, and other healthcare professionals dedicated to fighting homelessness. Resources on the site include publications and articles on outreach, clinical practice, and operations management.
    • National Alliance to End Homelessness Health Care Guide The National Alliance is a non-partisan, non-profit organization that advocates for change through educational programs for elected officials and policy makers. Read about the organization’s 10-year plan for developing re-housing and support services and explore community success stories.
    • Health Care for the Homeless Founded in Baltimore in 1985, HCH has become a national model for integrating medical care to underserved populations with advocacy. Resources include contact information for homeless shelters and services, food, legal services, and healthcare. HCH delivers services where the homeless are – on the streets.

  • Understanding Rights and Support

    Campus Resources

    • Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities These offices provide information on the rights of homeless, at risk, or otherwise disadvantaged youth on-campus while also helping students facing these issues find resources that can improve their lives.

    Off-Campus Alternatives

    • National Center for Homeless Education In addition to offering a helpline, the NCHE provides UHY with information about ongoing legislation, programs, and resources relevant to their needs on local, state, and national levels.
    • National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth Much of NAEHCY’s work focuses on public policy and advocacy, but the organization also works to educate those serving unaccompanied homeless youth in public institutions. A scholarship fund exists to help students pursuing college degrees.

    Online Resources

    • HEAR US Homeless Education Rights Homeless students have rights under the law. HEAR US advocates for systemic change and provides workshops for educators, policy makers, and the public at large. Learn about The McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act and discover resources for homeless families and youth.
    • Resources for Homeless Children and Youth The California Department of Education maintains an extensive online resource library. Find information for educators seeking legal authority to provide education to students “who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” Sample documents and strategies are available for download.
    • Homeless Bill of Rights The National Coalition for the Homeless advocates for new legislation protecting the homeless from discrimination, harassment, and restrictions on the use of public space. Resources include useful links for those without homes or soon to become homeless, for public advocates, and for those who want to get involved.

Financial Aid, FAFSA® & Homeless Students

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the form every incoming college student fills out if they hope to receive grants, loans, or work study funding from the federal government. These funds can help greatly offset the final cost and ensure learners avoid significant student debt, so applying is a critical step in the process of getting to college. Filling it out as a homeless learner, a student living in foster care, or a degree seeker in another special circumstance isn’t as easy as it is for those with permanent homes, but it can still be done.

Most financial aid applications presume that traditional college freshmen enter as dependents, so those who need to register as an independent must follow a few extra steps. It’s important that applicants be able to prove their financial independence to aid administrators, as these professionals are tasked with determining whether the students can apply independently. When filling out the FAFSA form, take these steps:

  1. Visit www.FAFSA.gov
  2. When completing the application, students identifying as homeless should indicate that they fall into the “special circumstances” category, meaning they cannot provide financial information about their parents.
  3. When prompted, answer the following question: “At any time on or after July 1, 2018, did your high school or school district homeless liaison determine that you were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless of were self-supporting and at the risk of being homeless?”
  4. Answer the following two questions that seek clarification about who made the determination.
  5. From there, a FAFSA representative reviews the application. They will contact you for proof of determination via a copy of the report.
  6. If you haven’t been deemed homeless but feel your situation merits additional considerations, contact the department of financial aid at the institution you plan to attend and explain your circumstances. The school can then make a decision on whether you are regarded as independent or dependent.

GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA). More information about educational benefits offered by the VA is available at the official U.S. government website at http://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill.

Avoiding Application Fees: Waivers & Aid

Beginning with the standardized tests required for college admission consideration (e.g. SAT and ACT), students who demonstrate financial hardship can obtain waivers for all associated fees. Additional waivers exist for those applying to colleges. In order to receive waivers, a student must demonstrate that they meet one of the following requirements:

  • Eligibility or enrollment in the National School Lunch Program
  • Annual family income meets Income Eligibility Guidelines
  • Student or family receives public assistance
  • Student is a ward of the state or has orphan status
  • Student lives in subsidized housing, in foster care or is homeless
  • Student or family is enrolled in a government air program for low-income individuals

Individuals hoping to receive a waiver should visit their school’s counseling office and request the appropriate forms.

Interview with Amy Dunning

Amy Dunning

MSW and senior case manager with the YWCA, imparts her advice to those students who may be struggling with homelessness.

Q: When assisting homeless individuals who aspire to take college-level classes or attain a degree, what are some of the most common barriers encountered?

A: 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.

Q: What are some of the best resources available to homeless students who wish to undertake postsecondary learning?

A: 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.

Q: Many homeless students feel overwhelmed when trying to balance their educations with other responsibilities in their lives, such as children, work, or supporting family members. What advice do you have for students who feel they have too much going on to pursue education?

A: 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.

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