College can be stressful. Finding yourself on your own for the first time, being thrust into new social groups and the pressure of academic success is tough. Throw in the strain of not knowing where your next meal is coming from or where you're going to sleep at night and now you may be struggling to keep up your grades, remain in positive mental health shape, and stay in school and attend all your classes. But just how many students are affected by this? More than you might think.
In one of the largest studies of its kind, the HOPE Center surveyed and profiled nearly 86,000 students on the subject of housing insecurity, food insecurity and homelessness. The numbers are surprising:
- Percent of homeless students: 18% at 2-year institutions, 14% at 4-year institutions
- Percent of students who are housing insecure: 60% at 2-year institutions, 48% at 4-year institutions
- How many students lack regular access to toiletries/food: 48% at 2-year institutions, 41% at 4-year institutions
- Number of students who are financially independent and balancing work/school: 60%
Source: The Hope Center College and University Basic Needs Insecurity: A National #RealCollege Survey Report, 2019
What do many students do in these situations? Typically, they work more. Around 40% of food-insecure students were working 21 hours or more per week, compared to 28% of students who were not food insecure. And 24% of housing-insecure students were working 30 or more hours a week, compared to just 11% of non-housing-insecure students.
More work and less housing and food security were shown to lead to lower grades and higher dropout rates. According to the study, students who were homeless or housing or food insecure reported fewer As and Bs and more Cs, Ds, and Fs, nearly across the board. Another survey from 2018 that compiled data from 123 institutions of higher learning found that students in these categories had a much higher chance of dropping out.
Help for College Students Facing Homelessness
If you're a student or aspiring student who is experiencing homelessness or food/housing insecurity, there are a number of resources you may be able to utilize to help you find nutritious food, stable housing and assistance with your degree.
The best place to start your search is with the National Center for Homeless Education, which is run by the U.S. Department of Education. From it, you can find a toll-free helpline and a support email where a representative can help you find resources in your area. You'll also find information on important federal legislation that governs your rights and access to assistance, including the McKinney-Vento Act, which we will explore in a moment.
Also useful is Single Stop, a program designed to help lift people out of poverty by connecting them to immediate-need resources, like food and housing programs, plus long-term needs, like jobs and academic assistance. Single Stop has staff on many campuses around the country that can help students find free tax assistance, legal and financial counseling, federal and state benefits and referrals to community support groups in the area.
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act
Enacted in 1987, the McKinney-Vento Act was the first major legislation to address the problem of homelessness in America. It provides federal money for homeless shelters and has also been responsible for the creation of several agencies and Continuum of Care Programs, including the Shelter Plus Care Program, the Supportive Housing Program and the Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) Program.
Who is Covered Under the McKinney-Vento Act?
The EHCY, in conjunction with the McKinney-Vento Act, offers assistance to children who are 21 or younger and homeless. Under the law, homeless is defined as without a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. Because of this definition, children may be covered if:
- They live in substandard housing, meaning it lacks an essential utility like heat, water, electricity, a kitchen or a bathroom.
- They live in a trailer park because they don't have the means for alternate adequate housing. The condition of the trailer is evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
- They live with friends or relatives because of hardship or loss of housing. This situation is covered if it's due to the illness or indigency of a parent or the child running away from home, but it can't be because parents send the child away to go to a better school.
- They are displaced because of a disaster.
- They live in a transitional shelter.
- They are migrants or immigrants without permanent housing.
It's important to note that the EHCY program was amended with the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 ('ESSA'). This new act excludes children who are awaiting foster care. Incarcerated children are also ineligible.
High School Students Experiencing Homelessness and Applying for College
These provisions might be of special importance for high school students who are homeless and applying for college. For one, these students can apply to have their SAT and ACT test fees waived. A guidance counselor at your school should be able to help you do this.
Also, the Higher Education Act provided special guidelines for high school students who are applying for financial aid. Unaccompanied students who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness can fill out and sign the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) without a parent's signature and without providing their parents' income. This is a critical distinction -- the FAFSA is the first step (and the best way) to get federal aid to pay for college, and students under 24 years of age are typically required to have their parents' income considered. Students who are homeless and at-risk will still need to provide their income and an address where they can reliably gather mail.
McKinney-Vento Act Assistance for Homeless College Students
Since the McKinney-Vento Act applies to students who are up to 21 years of age, it may apply to college students as well. Local Educational Agencies (LEAs) are required to assign McKinney-Vento students a liaison. These liaisons are responsible for helping students select a college, aiding them throughout the application process and ensuring on-campus support systems are in place during the enrollment phase.
In addition, several initiatives exist under the Federal TRIO programs that help students who are homeless or basic needs-insecure prepare for higher education and find success on-campus. Some of these programs include Talent Search, Student Support Services, the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR-UP) and the Educational Opportunity Centers and Staff Development Activities.
Homeless Bill of Rights
The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) works to end homelessness by lobbying for legislation, meeting immediate needs and educating local and state agencies about challenges that those who are homeless face. In addition to advocacy and fundraising efforts, the NCH meets everyday needs with programs that connect people who are homeless or soon-to-be-homeless with assistance for housing, food and healthcare. The NCH also maintains a large directory of service organizations where you can find shelters, medical care and permanent housing assistance near you.
This organization has also pushed a Homeless Bill of Rights, which says that those experiencing homelessness should be:
- Protected against segregation, laws targeting people for their lack of housing and not their behavior, and restrictions on the use of public space.
- Granted privacy and property protections.
- Allowed the opportunity to vote and feel safe in their community without fear or harassment.
- Provided broad access to shelter, social services, legal counsel and quality education for the children of homeless families.
Several cities and regions have adopted these homeless bills of rights including Baltimore, MD; Duluth, MN; Madison, WI; Traverse City, MI; the States of Connecticut; Illinois; Rhode Island and all of Puerto Rico. Several others are considering adding them.
Housing Help for Students Experiencing Homelessness
As we discussed earlier, not having a safe, secure place to sleep at night can adversely affect grades and often forces students to drop out. In the following sections, we'll look at housing assistance programs both on-campus and off-campus.
Off-Campus Housing Help for Students Experiencing Homelessness
Many resources exist off-campus for students who are enrolled or planning to enroll in college. Here are some of the most useful.
The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Exchange boasts a wealth of resources designed to help people who are homeless find assistance. Programs include the Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG) that moves people from homelessness into shelters and transitional homes, and HUD Rental Assistance programs that helps students locate inexpensive rentals, gives them vouchers to help pay rent and connects them with public housing options.
Many locations of the YMCA and the YWCA have cheap rooms to rent that include showers, restrooms, fitness and educational opportunities. Some even have transitional housing opportunities specifically for young people or pregnant women. While this used to be offered at every location, that's no longer the case. Check with your local YMCA/YWCA to see what options are available to you.
John Burton Advocates for Youth
The John Burton Advocates for Youth program provides housing options for former and current foster children in the State of California. Of particular note here is the THP-Plus program, which offers 24-36 months of housing for kids from the age of 18 to 24 or 25.
211 is a quick and easy portal to find housing, food, healthcare and financial assistance. You simply dial 211 and you're connected with a rep who can help you find temporary shelters, local housing and even ways to stay in your current home, like reducing utility bills and rent.
Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS (HOPWA)
Studies evaluating homelessness and HIV have shown that there is a connection between the two. Not only are they more likely to be infected, but they also struggle more than the rest of the population to suppress the disease. HOPWA takes a 'Housing is Healthcare' approach, finding permanent places for those affected. Oftentimes, HOPWA also provides ongoing nutritional services, job training, counseling and help with daily living.
On-Campus Housing Help for Students Experiencing Homelessness
On-campus housing assistance is available from many colleges and universities around the country, but what's available can vary from institution to institution. The best option is to go to your school's resident life offices and ask what programs or assistance it offers. This might feel uncomfortable or embarrassing, but it's important to let school administrators know your needs so they can help you meet them. The staff who run resource programs at colleges are generally compassionate, helpful and ready to listen. To give you an idea of what to expect, here are a few sample programs offered by schools in the U.S.
Florida State University's Unconquered Scholars Program
Florida State University runs the Center for Academic Retention & Enhancement (CARE) program, which seeks to help keep underrepresented and at-risk youth in school. Part of CARE is Unconquered Scholars, a program that focuses on students who are homeless or in foster care or relative care. Through it, these students can get one-on-one academic advising, life coaching, tutoring and financial assistance for housing.
Tacoma Community College's CHAP Program
Tacoma Community College started the College Housing Assistance Program (CHAP) to provide rental assistance for students so they have a stable place to live and study. To qualify, students must be taking at least 6 credits, be currently experiencing homelessness or at risk of becoming homeless, and meet certain income requirements. CHAP may also provide eligible students with subsidized housing or rent vouchers as they leave the program.
Kennesaw State University CARE Services
Campus Awareness, Resource & Empowerment (CARE) Services at Kennesaw State University in Georgia offers a wide range of support services to students who are homeless or near-homeless, including job placement, temporary housing, nutritious food and emergency loans. Assistance is awarded on a case-by-case basis.
Nutrition and Essentials Assistance for Students Facing Homelessness
Sometimes finding something healthy to eat can be a huge challenge. And eating non-nutritious food can have a negative effect on your health and your studies. Luckily, there are a number of ways to find food for little or no cost, both on campus and off.
Food banks take donations from grocery stores, pharmacies and individuals and offer it for free for those in need. Most carry essentials like toiletries, fruits, vegetables, canned goods, snacks, rice and pasta. If you don't know where your local food bank is, there are two easy ways to find one:
You might also consider:
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
Run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, this massive federal program provides a debit card with funds that refill each month. These benefits can be used on staple foods like meats, dairy, vegetables, bread and fruits.
- Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)
In addition to healthcare referrals and nutrition guidance, the WIC program provides supplemental food for toddlers and children up to age 5, pregnant women, non-breastfeeding postpartum women, breastfeeding women and infants. WIC may work differently depending on where you live. Some offer electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards, like the SNAP program, while others operate food pantry-like warehouses or deliver food to participants' houses.
- Swipe Out Hunger
Swipe Out Hunger runs an incredibly popular campaign called 'The Swipe Drive' that lets students donate their unused campus dining credits for those in need. This organization currently operates on 110 campuses around the country.
- Food Recovery Network
Back in 2011, some students from the University of Maryland noticed that usable food from the school cafeteria was being thrown out at an alarming rate. They founded the Food Recovery Network with two goals - reducing food waste and ending hunger on campus. Since then, this organization has started 230 chapters on campuses around the country, recovered nearly 4 million pounds of food and provided 3.2 million meals.
- Boise State University Food Pantry
One example of an on-campus food bank is the Boise State Food Pantry. Located in the Office of the Dean of Students, this pantry provides meals, cereals and snack options to students free of charge. All they need to do is show a student ID.
On-Campus Nutrition and Essential Support
Your school may also have programs designed to help feed you or find you nutritious options. Many larger colleges run on-campus food banks or have leftovers from the cafeteria that are available for free. Check with your school's food services to see if they have any initiatives. There are also several national and institutional organizations that offer nutritional assistance:
When you're attending class and worrying about finding food and shelter, your physical and mental health can sometimes take a back seat. For many, food and housing insecurity can have a profound effect on mental health. In fact, according to a study by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, 32% of students with food insecurity felt depressed, 29% experienced severe anxiety and 11% were having suicidal thoughts.
For students experiencing homelessness, those numbers jumped even higher -- 54% felt depressed, half had severe anxiety and nearly a quarter were having ideas of suicide.
Dealing with the mental and physical toll that these issues can have on students is critical. The following sections will go over a few of the resources students can utilize.
Off-Campus Health Assistance
Several governmental and non-profit organizations provide free or low-cost healthcare and counseling for homeless or housing insecure students.
Intended exclusively for college students, ULifeline is a hotline you can call or text at any time to talk about how you're feeling, get expert advice or connect with a confidential counseling program at your school or in your area. The ULifeline website also has an online self-evaluator tool.
National Health Care for the Homeless Council
The National Health Care for the Homeless Council (NHCHC) is a country-wide network of healthcare professionals and advocates who provide healthcare for individuals who are homeless or at-risk. The NHCHC site has an interactive map and a search tool for finding dental and medical healthcare clinics in the area.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and provides a wealth of resources including mental health counseling and substance abuse treatment. Its Treatment for Individuals Experiencing Homelessness (TIEH) program takes a multi-pronged approach to end homelessness that includes counseling, healthcare, food and housing.
San Francisco Health Care for the Homeless Program
The San Francisco Health Care for the Homeless Program (SFHCHP) provides medical care for individuals in need in the Bay Area and runs the Street Outreach Services (SOS) program, a mobile clinic that offers both emergency and preventative care to individuals who are homeless.
Metropolitan Family Health Network Health Care for the Homeless Program
Located in New York City, the Metropolitan Family Health Network Health Care for the Homeless Program offers preventative care like vaccinations, screenings, checkups and lab tests, plus substance abuse counseling and treatment for flu, asthma, malnutrition and more.
Campus Health Assistance
Your school might have a free on-campus clinic or be able to refer you to a nearby clinic that's free or low-cost. Here are a few examples of these types of programs.
University of California Los Angeles Student Run Homeless Clinic
Run by on-campus medical students and other trainees, the Student Run Homeless Clinic at UCLA offers a wide range of services to both students and the community. Some of these include urgent care, preventative screenings, disease management, wound care, mental health assistance and even help to stop smoking.
University of Washington Health and Wellness
For students without insurance, the University of Washington offers a number of subsidized health services for both mental and physical care. For instance, UW students can see a primary care provider once per quarter, get unlimited visits with a nurse and take advantage of Pet Therapy, Let's Talk (informal counseling) and short-term professional counseling. Students are also welcome to 10 free safe sex supplies every week.
Texas A&M University HelpLine
Staffed by fellow students who have been trained by professional counselors, the TAMU HelpLine is available 24/7 on the weekends to offer someone to talk to and as a launching point for referrals to free or low-cost mental health services, community agencies and other departments within Texas A&M.
Applying To College While Homeless
For students who are homeless and want to get a degree, one of the biggest obstacles is navigating the process of applying to schools, getting financial aid and digging up creative ways to pay for school (including scholarships and grants). Making sure you maximize your options can go a long way toward ensuring success in college. On top of the fee waivers for the SAT and ACT tests we mentioned above, students experiencing homelessness may be able to use special dispensations when applying for financial aid. Here are some handy tips.
Financial Aid, FAFSA & Homeless Students
Most students under 24 who are applying for financial aid are automatically assumed to be dependents of their parents or guardians. This means that the government typically wants to know all sorts of financial information about the parents to determine eligibility for free federal aid or low-interest loans. For students who are homeless and supporting themselves, this can be a real hurdle. However, while it might mean jumping through a hoop or two, it's do-able and it can make a huge difference in the total price tag for a degree.
The U.S. Department of Education's Student Aid site has a checklist for determining if you'll be considered dependent or independent. It covers a lot of situations including emancipated minor status, deceased parents and a definition of homeless. Of course, every situation is different. If yours doesn't fall neatly into any of the categories on the list (in other words, you answered 'no' to all of the questions), that's okay; you might still be considered independent. What you should do is contact your school's financial aid office and explain your situation. They should be able to help you understand your options.
For a full guide on using financial aid, make sure to take a look at our The Ultimate Guide to Financial Aid and FAFSA for College Students. It has step-by-step instructions and tons of ideas for saving money on college.
Scholarships for Students Experiencing Homelessness
There is a range of scholarships available to students who are homeless or have experienced homelessness or extreme poverty. Here are a handful of them.
National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth Scholarship
One of the biggest education advocacy groups for children who are homeless, the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth offers four scholarships worth $2,000 each to students who are under 21, eligible for McKinney-Vento assistance and are currently pursuing a degree. Candidates must submit transcripts, two letters of recommendation (from specific educators or liaisons) and an essay by May 1.
Chicago Coalition for the Homeless Scholarship
Available to students in Chicago and the surrounding area, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless Scholarship offers $2,500 for high school seniors who are struggling with homelessness (verified by a liaison). To be eligible, applicants must have a minimum 2.5 GPA, have filed a FAFSA and be admitted to or attending a 2-year or 4-year school. The deadline for the application is April 27 and the deadline for all materials is May 1.
Horatio Alger Association Scholarship Programs
Though not exclusively for students experiencing homelessness, the Horatio Alger Association offers a wide range of scholarships designed for students in critical financial need. Its State Scholarships provide $10,000 each (all 50 states offer them), its Career & Technical Scholarships offer $2,500 each (over 1,000 are available) and its National Scholarships are valued at $25,000 each (100 are up for grabs). Deadlines and eligibility requirements vary but most ask for a minimum GPA, demonstrated perseverance against adversity and U.S. citizenship.
Home Through Learning Award
Offered by the Homeless Children's Education Fund, the Home Through Learning Award provides $2,500 to students aged 24 or younger who reside in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania and who are homeless or who have experienced homelessness during their education. Applicants must send in an essay, transcripts, two letters of recommendation and an application to be considered.
Western Michigan University Foundation Scholarship
Students entering Western Michigan University might be eligible for the Foundation Scholarship, which offers $15,000 per year for tuition. Applicants must have a 3.7+ weighted cumulative GPA and be one of the following: homeless, a ward of the state, undocumented or eligible for the Federal Free or Reduced Price Lunch program (FRPL). The application and materials must be submitted by February 15.
NH Coalition to End Homelessness Hope Starts Here Scholarship
The New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness started this scholarship to help students living in the state who have been homeless at some point in their schooling. Candidates must be under 21 and pursuing a college education. Requirements include a personal essay, two letters of recommendation and a transcript. The award amount varies, and the application deadline is June 1.
Community and Academic Support for Homeless Students
Once enrolled, students experiencing homelessness face additional challenges including balancing work and school, goal setting or child care concerns. Students experiencing homelessness can also feel isolated from their peers, which makes community support and engagement just as important to students as other basic needs. The following sections detail programs that can help students stay connected and assist with daily life.
Academic Support for Students Experiencing Homelessness
Most colleges have Academic Retention Centers (ARCs) designed to help their students focus on their studies, maintain a healthy work/life balance and find jobs when they graduate. Although not all schools have ARC programs that specifically address students who are facing homelessness, many do have resources that can be of benefit. Below we'll look at a few exemplary ones.
Amarillo College Billie Bee Flesher Advocacy & Resource Center
Amarillo College has been a leader when it comes to addressing low-income and at-risk students. In 2010, it enacted the No Excuses Poverty Initiative, a program aimed at listening to the bare needs of their disadvantaged students. From it sprung four intertwined programs that can bolster the success of students -- Social Services, a Mentoring Program, a Food Pantry and a Career Center. Through these four services, Amarillo College addresses some of the biggest barricades to success and gives students support with nutrition, free academic tutoring, free textbooks, low-cost transportation, subsidized housing and healthcare. Once they've got their degree, Amarillo funnels students towards jobs and fosters their success in the real world.
San Joaquin Delta College
San Joaquin Delta College is dedicated to helping students who are homeless or housing- and food-insecure find academic success in their programs. To do this, the school offers Empowerment Resource Programs that simultaneously address basic needs and give academic support to students who might need it the most. Students facing homelessness have access to free food, housing support, financial aid counseling and even safe shower facilities. They also enjoy computer access, educational supplies and free peer and professional tutoring.
San Francisco State University Guardian Scholars Program
Youth who are in, or came from, foster programs, can get academic support from the San Francisco State University Guardian Scholars Program. In it, students have access to a community of mentors made up of current and former students, free tutoring services and individual case managers who monitor and support their progress every step of the way. Guardian Scholars also provides priority class registration, shots at scholarships and internship and job opportunities.
Community Support for Students Experiencing Homelessness
Outside of your school's support services, you're likely to find places in your area that offer a safe place to take care of basic needs. These 'drop-in centers,' are typically designed exclusively for young people, giving them a chance to shower, take in a hot meal, browse free clothes and use the computer. The services vary by location but here are a few examples to give you an idea of what your local drop-in center might have.
NYC Youth Drop-In Centers
AtNYC Youth Drop-In Centers in all five boroughs, New York youth from ages 14-24 will find a place to charge their phone, take care of basic needs, get financial literacy training and help to connect to other support services in the area. This network also has LGBTQ-exclusive locations including The Door, Queens Pride House and Brooklyn Community Pride Center. Finding a center is pretty simple -- just dial 311 and ask for youth shelters.
Homeless Students With Dependents
Navigating college while homeless is a monumental challenge; doing it with a child of your own can be even tougher. Parents have to meet their needs and the bigger needs of their children, and that means finding proper food, locating daycare and procuring essentials like diapers, strollers, clothes and grooming necessities. Not surprisingly, this pressure makes many students throw in the towel.
Thankfully, programs exist to help keep these students from falling through the cracks.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families
The Temporary Assistance for Needy Familiesprogram provides childcare services, work prep, and financial help to men and women who have a dependent child under the age of 19 (this includes women who are pregnant). Funds are granted federally but each state decides how to allocate aid and services, so you'll want to look for your state's TANF office to apply. However, the link above includes a general eligibility checker you can use to see if you might qualify.
Child Nutrition Act
First enacted in 1966, the Child Nutrition Act provides free and low-cost meals to children in school including breakfast and lunch. The act is refreshed and strengthened from time and time. The current act, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, expired in 2015 and has not yet been renewed, though the programs within it are still active. Many are trying to push for Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR), which would include several bills aimed at helping children get nutritious meals at little or no cost to parents including the CARE for Kids Act, the No Shame at School Act and the Access to Healthy Foods for Young Children Act. One such group of bills, called the Summer Nutrition Bills, would make sure kids have the same meals throughout the summer months, which could positively affect students with children.