College Help for Homeless Students

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.

Tamara“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 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 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.

Defining Homelessness

Homeless Student

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.

Discovering Hope

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.

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.

Go local

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.

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.

As you prepare to attend college, there are a number of things you must do to prepare. Between graduating, learning more about financial aid, and completing all necessary prerequisites, you’ll have plenty to do. Amidst that whirlwind, it’s important for you to find the right program for your academic interests and professional goals. Below, we’ve ranked the top programs in a number of popular disciplines. As you’re searching for schools, be sure to take a look at these lists to learn more about each college’s online format and program highlights. Affordability is a central component of each school’s ranking, and every college profiled offers low tuition, generous financial aid, and a variety of scholarship opportunities for students from all backgrounds.