Homeless Youth And Higher Education

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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


  • Food and Living Essentials


  • Balancing Work and School


  • Depression


  • Basic Medical Care


  • Understanding Rights and Support


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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