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Facing the Truth About Student Homelessness

As educators, we are often on the front lines of accessing the needs of America's children. As such, we often are the first defense for the nation's youth. But sometimes, what we have to defend them against isn't always visible. Problems at home or lifestyle challenges can manifest as bad behavior, poor grades and hygiene, and absenteeism.

We may not always be the most astute, we may not always be the most compassionate, and we don't have a crystal ball full of answers. But we should always be aware of what can affect our students' performance. It is part of our job to see beyond the symptoms to see the causes. One of those causes is student homelessness.

Today, the percentage of children facing housing uncertainty is rising, so we must face the truth about student homelessness head-on.

Today's Housing Crisis

In days past, families made up just a small fraction of our country's un-housed population. But the National Conference of State Legislatures now reports that about 4.2 million children, teens, and young adults are currently living without stable housing across the country. 

Many of these young people do not have a guardian.

In some cases, younger children are sent from family member to family member, bouncing around from home to home, sleeping on couches or in spare rooms. Some of our students may be awaiting a foster home and are often separated from siblings. 

Students may also be faced with extended stays in motels or hotels, surrounded by strangers. Some may live in shelters or on the streets. Each situation carries the weight of insecurity in these children's hearts.

Student's Daily Lives

Many challenges stem from a lack of secure housing. For our students, it can often be difficult to balance their personal lives with school. 

When you experience insecure housing, basic hygiene can be a challenge. Students will often face a lack of bathing, laundry care, and dental care. It is possible to identify students struggling to find a stable home by this apparent lack of personal care.

In addition to a lack of resources, students' parents works multiple jobs to keep above water. Because of this, students are either in the care of older siblings or caring for their siblings themselves. This leaves little time for assignments outside of class.

Food, Resources, and Links To Behavior

Students facing home insecurity may also have to deal with other challenges, like food insecurity. These cases often happen in impoverished communities. If you couple lack of housing with lack of physical accessibility to groceries, you get a dangerous mix.

It is like this that many students who face one challenge in their home lives find themselves facing a conglomerate of challenges other students simply may not. The combination of stress, trauma, hunger, and exhaustion can lead to questionable classroom behavior, which can be difficult at times to manage. 

But what may seem like a temper tantrum or delinquency may simply result from challenges outside the classroom.

Our Role

So what can we do as stable adult figures as we identify those students who are struggling outside the classroom? First and foremost, you must identify students in need. Once identified, you can find out more about their situation and put together an effective support team for this child.

Student Liaisons

According to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, each school district must employ a liaison for the un-housed student population in each district. These liaisons are required to ensure that each student is not denied their right to education. As such, these liaisons are an invaluable resource for educators and students alike when confronting student homelessness.

Social Workers & Guidance Counselors

In the same vein, the social worker on staff should be notified, as well as the school guidance counselor. The social worker can assist both the child and guardian in attaining crucial resources and can follow that student from school to school. 

Often, students "fall through the cracks" of the systems in place when moving from place to place. These students may be placed in several schools per year. A social worker can monitor that student throughout their school career.

Reconsider Class Work

However, building a team of adults is not enough. There are many steps we can take to relieve some of the pressure at-risk students face daily. In recent years, the "no homework" movement has gained traction, with many educators siting the chaotic home lives of their students as reasons to refrain from assigning outside work.

Daily Interventions and Preventions

While many of you may feel that homework is essential, I ask that we each conduct a cursory investigation into our students' lives. Many students lead lives that are counter-productive to completing quality homework in their personal time. If assignments are something that your classroom truly cannot function without, we should be considering alternative options. 

Scheduling class time for what we would normally give out as homework gives our unhoused students a quiet, focused space to complete assignments. It would also create equal opportunity between students of all backgrounds. 

Many of us currently stock our classrooms with our own supplies. However, perhaps our schools should look beyond crayons and notebooks. Having a basket on hand that contains travel and snack-sized items could help alleviate hunger or hygienic issues. These can be discreetly kept in the nurse's office. In turn, this will greatly affect your student's mental health.


Overall, the most important thing we can do as educators is to be present for our students. Be attentive, compassionate. Forge bonds with our students that go beyond basic studies and show them that they are worthy of respect and care. Let them know that when help is needed, there is someone there to lift them up. 

You can't control your students home life, but you can make school a stable second home for your students.

Written by Amber White, Education World Contributor

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