Guide To College for Students Experiencing Homelessness

Students experiencing homelessness while in college have the right to many of the necessities they need to focus on their studies. Discover programs that provide food, shelter, financial aid, and guidance for students in need.

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
McKinney-Vento Act Assistance for Homeless College Students
Homeless Bill of Rights

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.

HUD Exchange
John Burton Advocates for Youth
Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS (HOPWA)

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
Tacoma Community College's CHAP Program
Kennesaw State University CARE Services

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

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:

The Feeding America site lets you search by zip code, and helps you locate a food pantry or subsidized grocery store near you.

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.

  • 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:

    • 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.

    • Staying Healthy

      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.

      National Health Care for the Homeless Council
      San Francisco Health Care for the Homeless Program
      Metropolitan Family Health Network Health Care for the Homeless Program

      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
      University of Washington Health and Wellness
      Texas A&M University HelpLine

      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
      Chicago Coalition for the Homeless Scholarship
      Horatio Alger Association Scholarship Programs
      Home Through Learning Award
      Western Michigan University Foundation Scholarship
      NH Coalition to End Homelessness Hope Starts Here Scholarship

      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
      San Joaquin Delta College
      San Francisco State University Guardian Scholars Program

      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

      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
      Child Nutrition Act