Those experiencing homelessness may believe there’s no way to attend college, let alone earn a degree. However, there’s a variety of support available that can help.
We’ve compiled a guide to help those experiencing homelessness get the information and assistance they need to successfully complete a college education.
“My name is Tamara South. During my freshman year at the College of New Rochelle, my grandmother died. I became homeless at 18 years old.
I continued to attend school and was given permission to stay in my dorm room over the holidays. However, the school became too expensive, so I transferred to Binghamton University, where I majored in Human Development. I used financial aid and scholarships to pay to live in the dorms once there. Later, I used financial aid to live in an off-campus apartment that I shared with a roommate.
After completing my bachelor’s, I entered graduate school to study the Sociology of Education. I applied to be a graduate housing assistant, allowing me to live for free at New York University until I graduated with my master’s degree and got a full-time job.
I encourage college students facing homelessness to seek out opportunities for free housing, such as working as a resident assistant in a dorm. Look for resource centers for homeless college students in your area and check your school for year-round housing options. Ask your friends if you can stay with them or at least store your belongings at their place until you’re more stable. Utilize every resource you can find; my work-study job had a food pantry that helped ease the financial burden of buying food every week.
Just because you’re homeless doesn’t mean you have to quit school. Being a homeless student is not the end of the world; you can finish your degree and accomplish your dreams.
Since graduating, I’ve written a book called Healing from Within which features my poetic workings and details my inner struggles. I am the chapter president of the Anti Suicide Jesus is the Answer Campaign and am working to help those dealing with bereavement issues or suicidal thoughts. I live in Bronx, NY with my husband and children.”
The Rise of Youth Homelessness
The homeless youth population is difficult to estimate since they do not typically gather in the same area as older homeless individuals. However, Safe Horizons estimates that more than 1.7 million youth experience some degree of homelessness each year. More than 50,000 young people will live on the streets for over six months, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Homeless youth trying to stay in high school or attend college face many unique needs in addition to those common to all students. Aside from housing concerns, they may also lack enough money for basic needs such as food, transportation, textbooks or communication devices like cell phones. Thankfully, schools across the nation are recognizing this growing issue and have begun providing helpful services and resources, such as year-round housing and food pantries. Additionally, many local organizations serving homeless populations often offer resources specific to college students.
Facing Homelessness Before Enrolling
There are two types of homeless college students: those who entered school while homeless and those who became homeless while already in attendance. Experiencing youth homelessness before entering college means students are more likely to be comfortable accessing aid from social services, but probably unfamiliar with how to find and navigate the resources available through the school itself. It’s important for homeless students to learn more about the options available to them, such as financial aid.
These students come from varied backgrounds, but research shows there are several reasons for their situations. The top three reasons students might lack housing before enrolling in college include:
- Economic insecurity: Students who come from a home lacking consistent or ample income can quickly find themselves homeless should a parent or guardian lose their job. While most research is done on the state level, it can be seen as indicative of the national climate. The 2012 Minnesota Homeless Study found that 20% of parents who became homeless had been laid off in the previous six months; of those, only 5% had received unemployment benefits in the year prior. According to data collected between 2005 and 2008, the National Runaway Switchboard had a 200% increase in calls from homeless youth who cited economic reasons for leaving home.
- Lack of parent or guardian: Kids who grew up in the foster system face significant challenges when aging out, especially in securing safe and permanent housing. In a groundbreaking project conducted by Chapin Hall , researchers followed 700 kids between the time they aged out of foster care until they were age 26. When they left foster care, 11% had experienced homelessness; by the end of the study, 36% had been without permanent housing at some point.According to the study, the top three associative reasons adolescents from foster homes become homeless include:
- History of running away from home
- Being male
- History of suffering from physical abuse
- Kicked out or ran away from home: The National Runaway Safeline reports that between 1.6 and 2.8 million kids run away from their homes every year. Reasons vary, but frequently include episodes of sexual or physical abuse, conflict with parents, pregnancy or being kicked out for coming out to their families. According to Safe Horizon , approximately 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ and account for a significant portion of those who run away or are kicked out of the family home.
Facing Homelessness as a Student
Another growing group of homeless students are those who find themselves without housing once they reach college. This group is particularly vulnerable, as they most likely have no previous experience with social services and may not know who or where to reach out to for help.
Common reasons for becoming homeless once enrolled in school include:
- Trying to make ends meet. As the cost of postsecondary education continues to rise, many students may find their savings running dry in the midst of completing their degree. Others may have first arrived at college with a significant, yet short term scholarship or funding package. According to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), there are currently 58,000 students attending college who identify as homeless, a 75% increase over the last three years. Many of these students may not be able to take full advantage of federal financial aid as they are unable to provide information about their parents or guardians and don’t have full independent status.
- Cut off by their families. Whether through death, job loss or a significant disagreement, students whose parents or guardians cut off financial support during college can quickly find themselves battling homelessness. A study by Youth.gov found that nearly 90% of kids in Family Youth Service Bureau shelters found their way there after family disputes. These students face the same challenges as those given above when trying to find support funds, since they often don’t have independent financial status to receive sufficient financial aid.
Barriers to Finishing a Degree
Aside from the obvious financial obstacles, homeless students frequently run into a variety of other unique challenges.
Some of the top issues include:
- Securing year-round housing
- Gaining a job to supplement financial aid packages
- Finding reliable transportation
- Receiving academic support
According to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth , many homeless students are also the first in their families to receive a postsecondary education, meaning they are likely unfamiliar with how to navigate the higher education system. Without guidance or access to those who have attended college themselves, students will have to learn a variety of new information regarding maintaining financial aid, registering for classes and more. This is on top of dealing with the stress of being homeless and keeping up with coursework.
It can also be difficult to find the different kinds of support available at college campuses. In addition to common resources for all students, such as academic advisors, health services and tutoring, many colleges now offer specific resources for homeless students. These services could include food pantries, year-round campus housing, transportation or special work-study opportunities. For example, the University of North Florida ensures that all students have access to the resources and support they need to succeed at college.
As for financial obstacles, homeless students will need to understand how to apply for and maintain financial aid. Some eligible students might not self-identify as homeless, but may find they actually fit the definition used in the context of financial aid. The first step is proving their status as homeless and independent. It can be confusing figuring out how to do this, so let’s start with defining homelessness for these purposes.
The McKinney Vento Act is considered the key piece of federal legislation pertaining to educational support for homeless children and teens. According to this document, youth are considered homeless if they lack a “fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” Within this framework, there are additional definitions of living situations that don’t quite fit these requirements, yet young people living in said situations may still be considered homeless.
Examples include: hotels, trailer parks, campgrounds, emergency or transitional shelters, vehicles, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, transportation settings or any other places not designed to be long-term sleeping accommodations.
This designation is especially important for homeless students, as fitting within this description is ultimately what determines a student’s eligibility for financial support. To receive federal financial aid, all students must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) ; however, their dependent or independent status greatly affects the amount of funding they are eligible to receive. As a dependent, it is assumed the student has familial support, therefore their family’s financial information is included in the evaluation for disbursed funds. Although a student may technically be considered a dependent, in the case of many homeless students, this does not mean they are actually receiving financial support from their families. Those labeled independent students are understood to not receive any backing from their families, so only the student’s financial information is considered when disbursing aid. Common methods for receiving independent status are reviewed in the NAEHCY toolkit.
While more research is needed to paint a full picture, report have shown that homeless youth aged 18-24 who are able to stay in school are overwhelmingly successful at avoiding homelessness once they complete their degrees. Programs such as the federally funded Opening Doors work diligently to further decrease and eventually eliminate youth homelessness. Currently, the goal is to eradicate homelessness for children, youth and families by 2020.
In addition to other university-sponsored programs and local organizations supporting this mission, homeless students now have an excellent chance to step away from their past struggles and move into brighter futures.
Finding Local Resources
Regardless of the circumstances contributing to homelessness, one of the keys to getting over the initial hurdles keeping students out of school is finding the right resources and people to help.
To have the best chance at completing a college degree, students should take the following steps:
Find a mentor
A mentor can be of the most important people in a student’s life, particularly if the student is struggling with homelessness. Whether relying on a former or current teacher, employer or trusted adult who understands how to navigate the educational system, this person can be a true advocate and cheerleader. Though most homeless youth are used to fending for themselves, one of the most important things to remember is that this journey doesn’t have to be taken alone: reach out and ask for help.
Use available resources
For homeless youth who haven’t completed their high school diploma, there are a number of resources available to help accomplish this goal. Public libraries can provide valuable information and resources. Furthermore, every state has a high school equivalency website offering information about test preparation services and fee waivers for college entrance examinations such as the ACT and SAT.
In addition to campus resources, many local and national organizations with regional centers serve homeless populations with a variety of resources and support services. Available resources may include food pantries, subsidized childcare services, help lines, scholarship funds, transitional housing or mental health services. The National Center for Homeless Education is a great source for finding out about services available in each state.
Use campus resources
As more becomes known about homeless college students’ needs and challenges, many universities are stepping up to the plate to create innovative departments staffed by professionals specifically focused on helping this population. Academic retention centers (ARCs) aim to alleviate common stresses faced by homeless college students, such as finding a job or understanding how to budget funds. These centers are valuable, since they understand both the demands of college and the struggles of homeless students and seek to bridge the gap.
Local non-profits are another place to seek support. Powered by driven individuals focused on supporting homeless youth, these organizations exist to mentor and empower you.
Navigating the System
Though there are many systems in place to provide support for homeless students, they aren’t necessarily easy to navigate, especially if you have no one to guide you through them. Some of these resources are incredibly intimidating, even for traditional students, such as the FAFSA. We’ve outlined how to approach financial aid and other social services to ensure homeless students have access to the best resources to help them complete their degrees.
Financial Aid & the FAFSA
One of the most important documents for a prospective homeless college student to understand is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA. To receive any federal funding, all students must fill out this form. Word to the wise: the sooner you can fill this out, the better, as funds are dispersed on a first come, first served basis. For many homeless students, the extra hurdle comes in establishing themselves as an independent. When it comes to financial aid, the federal government assumes all students under the age of 24 are still financially dependent on their parents, meaning their financial information will be needed to fill out the form. Conversely, if a student is registered as independent, only their financial information will be used to qualify for this need-based funding.
Officially, the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and youth defines unaccompanied youth as:
“Young people who lack safe, stable housing and who are not in the care of a parent or guardian. They may have run away from home or been forced to leave by their parents. Unaccompanied youth live in a variety of temporary situations, including shelters, the homes of friends or relatives, cars, campgrounds, public parks, abandoned buildings, motels and bus or train stations.”
Students who fit this description qualify for independent status, regardless of being younger than 24. For educators and financial aid professionals, the U.S. Department of Education released a memo in July 2015 clarifying the requirements and steps for students to be qualified as unaccompanied homeless youth (UHY).
The most important thing homeless students can do is make sure they fill out the FAFSA early and answer questions pertaining to their status correctly. The NAEHCY provides a helpful tip sheet on how to avoid common FAFSA efforts.
Campus Financial Resources
In addition to scholarship funds homeless students may be eligible to receive, numerous colleges have a list of resources such as emergency funds or short-term housing solutions. State College in Pennsylvania and Bronx Community College in New York demonstrate how colleges can serve their student populations. Both schools provide contact information for multiple local emergency shelters and other resource centers.
Off-Campus Financial Resources
A number of local, national and governmental organizations offer financial resources to homeless college students, depending on their needs. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a Homeless Resource Center that provides a list of state-by-state resources. One such resource is Open Hearth , a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit providing free financial literacy workshops to help homeless individuals learn how to manage their money effectively.
Some of the best resources for homeless college students are just a click away. CTLawHelp is a website offering free legal assistance to those with very low incomes and includes details about a variety of cash assistance and emergency housing programs. The National Center for Homeless Education also provides a helpful list of scholarships homeless students are eligible to receive.
Applying for Social Services
Students that become homeless after enrolling in college often have no experience applying for and securing social services. Below you’ll find a list of the most basic and necessary resources available.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is designed to support low-income individuals to purchase healthy foods. Further details about the program, eligibility requirements and how to apply are given on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service website.
Between Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), eligible, unaccompanied homeless youth can receive health insurance and medical attention once enrolling in the programs. The NAEHCY offers a helpful toolkit providing information about eligibility requirements and how to sign up.
Section 8 Housing
Section 8 housing, also known as Tenant-Based Rental Assistance, supports those with extremely low-incomes to find subsidized housing. This type of housing is provided through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which offers a helpful list of tools and resources to sign up for the service.
Traditional student housing is designed for students to live in dormitories on a semester-basis. For homeless students, this is a huge problem. Securing year-round housing can seem like an insurmountable task when rent is too steep to pay and it’s not clear if extended living in on-campus housing is even an option. Don’t fret; there are several places to look for answers.
Many college campuses provide a variety of resources related to homeless college student housing needs. The Office of Residence Life at many schools can assist students in securing a year-round dormitory room if those are offered at the college. Conversely, the off-campus support office often has a comprehensive list of local support services or affordable housing options near the school. A recent feature popping up on some campuses involves using Greek housing during schools breaks. Depending on the school, students may or may not be required to be part of the fraternity or sorority. If students are in need of housing, there are plenty of schools that provide assistance, such as Portland State University , which offers a comprehensive list of resources.
In addition to local homeless resource centers and shelters, many students may find they are able to stay with new friends they’ve made at college, or with extended family members. Local youth and family services often provide alternative housing, as do nonprofits focused on serving homeless youth. Public libraries often have resources listing how to get in touch with these organizations to learn more.
Depending on the length of time a student needs housing, a sublet could be a viable option. Sublet.com provides a helpful search tool for cheap housing specifically catering to college students. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also provides a resource page for homeless youth.
Food and Personal Essentials
Though housing is the primary area of need for homeless students, it’s important to note that there are resources in place to help feed and provide personal essentials to them as well. If attending school without any financial support while not working, these are incredibly important to consider.
There are several places to look to find organizations providing such services, such as:
In addition to meal plans that can often be covered by financial aid or scholarship funds, numerous colleges now offer food pantries on campus to help students avoid hunger. Middle Tennessee State University’s One Stop service was created to take care of their students’ food needs.
Several national and local food banks cater to this population, including soup kitchens, food banks and even mobile food trucks. Feeding America provides an excellent search tool to find one of their 200+ food banks. Many public libraries have printed lists of local food banks, soup kitchens and other relevant organizations on hand for those who ask for them.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and NAEHCY provide a helpful webinar that reviews student’s’ eligibility to access food assistance programs. Additionally, the Homeless Shelter Directory provides a state-by-state search tool for over 12,000 soup kitchens, food pantries and food banks across the nation.
Healthcare, Including Mental Health
Homeless students are at higher risk for health issues, including mental illnesses like depression. Having to battle these problems without medical care can drastically increase stress and make focusing on school that much harder. However, there are resources in place to provide care and support to students.
Every college campus should have a health center that any enrolled student can visit to receive either immediate assistance or a referral to a licensed professional. On-campus provisions include both physical and mental health services and students can generally walk in and be seen or make an appointment via the department’s website.
The National Health Care for the Homeless Council provides basic healthcare services to the homeless population through a variety of national initiatives and local centers.
Students should check their university’s website or health services website, as they now frequently provide a list of local resources catering to underprivileged or low-income students. For instance, San Jose State University’s Counseling and Psychological Services website offers a list of local community resources.
Homeless students might be overwhelmed at the idea of juggling their living situation with attending college. However, there are plenty of resources available to help them make it through their studies successfully.
Free or Low-Cost Study Resources
A variety of organizations provide resources to help students who are either preparing to apply to college or are already taking university-level courses. Some of the most popular include:
Students lacking proper technology can either apply for a scholarship that helps cover the costs of a computer and other necessary items, or take advantage of the computer labs available at their school or local libraries. For students who already have some form of technology to use, some of the best free education apps include:
Resources for School/Life Balance
For students who are feeling overwhelmed trying to balance school and life responsibilities, one of the best resources available is the counseling center at their university. The vast majority of universities provide licensed therapists and counselors at no charge to enrolled students, saving them hundreds of dollars. The University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee provides an online resource that not only shows the type of support services available at many colleges, but also offers helpful tips on balancing academic, social, physical, mental, spiritual and financial responsibilities while in college.
Students qualifying at unaccompanied homeless youth (UHY) can often receive a number of fee waivers for common costs associated with qualifying for and applying to colleges. The NAEHCY provides valuable information about how to get these required college tests covered.
Scholarships and Financial Aid for Homeless Students
In addition to the common challenges and periods of adjustment faced by all college students, homeless students often encounter a number of added challenges. Some of the biggest hurdles to staying focused on schoolwork include worries over housing and finances, mental health issues, family problems, likely being the first of their families to attend college and feeling like they are navigating everything alone. For this reason, the dropout rates of homeless students tend to be significantly higher than their traditional student peers. These students need not lose hope: students in similar situations have persevered and completed their educations, which in turn enabled them to secure full-time housing.
Vice recently published the stirring story of Taylor, a homeless college student who is fighting against all the challenges with determination and diligence. Taylor’s story is like that of many homeless students, who can often feel like they are constantly battling against extreme odds. By utilizing resources, relying on mentors and advocates and finding balance between school and other responsibilities, Taylor is now in the final year of her undergraduate degree and hopes to attend law school.
As advised by Tamara South above, it’s key for homeless college students is to reach out.
Reach out to your college, local and national organizations, governmental departments, companies offering scholarships and adults around who can direct you to the proper people to receive help. You don’t have to take this on alone, and there are countless individuals and organizations available to provide support.