How Homelessness Impacts Students and How We Can Help

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The U.S. Department of Education defines homeless students as those who “lack a fixed, regular, and nighttime residence.” For the 2015-16 school year, there were more than 1.3 million public school students[1] classified as homeless in the United States, about 2.6% of the total public school student population. Nearly 18% of those underprivileged students, numbering more than 232,000, suffer from disabilities. The number of homeless students detected has increased by 70% over the past decade.[2]

Challenges Homeless Students Face

Homelessness places extraordinary internal stress on students of all ages. Basic food, survival, and economic needs become persistent worries. Chronic instability and mobility add their own pressure. Students may be exposed to trauma, mistreatment, substance abuse, and health risks as well.

Younger students may suffer from cognitive and behavioral development issues as a result of homelessness. Only 30% of homeless students reached academic proficiency in reading and 25% in mathematics.[3] Childcare, work, and other responsibilities may burden older students, preventing them from completing school work. Only 64% of homeless students graduate high school, compared to 84% of all students.[4]

Problems with teen bullying and cyberbullying are well documented. Homeless students can be vulnerable to many different forms of school bullying. Other students may bully homeless students about the state of their clothing over social media which can compound already prevalent attendance problems.[5] Students subject to discrimination about their race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation face a particular risk in the school climate. Non-sheltered homeless students reported discriminatory bullying at a rate (52.7%) more than twice as frequent as general students.[6]

Homeless students face a greater risk of involvement in school violence. Non-sheltered homeless students reported a rate of weapon involvement (60.3%) more than five times the rate of non-homeless students in student surveys. Seventy-seven percent of non-sheltered homeless students reported behavioral victimization, measurable instances of violence, in school.[7]

Being homeless may harm students’ mental health. The statistics from school surveys suggest more than 80% of homeless students may have at least one psychiatric disorder, a rate four times that of the general population.[8] At the same time, homeless students face an array of logistical, economic, and social barriers to obtaining adequate mental healthcare.

How to Spot Homeless Students

Parents and students may hide their homeless status and miss out on potential aid available to them. Schools and teachers may ascertain the problem through telltale signs.

Appearance: Homeless students may wear unclean clothing, have gone a long time without a haircut, or have unaddressed health, dental, and hygiene issues.

Attendance: Homeless students may have trouble getting to and from school. Extended or recurrent absences, repeated tardiness, and frequently missed assignments could be indicators. Homeless students may also have a long list of attended schools or lack appropriate paperwork.

Behavior: Homeless students may signal their homeless status indirectly. They may carry a backpack full of non-school-related personal items or hoard food that is distributed. Students may also reference changes in their living conditions or respond elusively to questions about their home life.

How to Help Homeless Students

Schools should approach homeless students and their families with a firm understanding of their legal rights and educational needs. They can provide students and their families with information about federal aid programs they may be eligible for, such as those providing temporary housing and subsidized school lunches. They can also inform families about available tutoring and local after-school programs. Schools can also take steps to ensure that a student’s basic needs are met. Those could range from providing healthy snacks to helping a student find shower and laundry facilities.

Teachers should offer a welcoming environment. They can perform educational assessments and form an educational plan with help from a school counselor. They can check in with students themselves, enlist other students to help new students settle in, and make sure they are not singled out in any way. Teachers can communicate rules and expectations clearly and make sure not to hold homeless students accountable for factors beyond their control.

Teachers — and other adults in leadership positions — can only help homeless students if they’re aware they exist. That means paying close attention to the students, asking the right questions, and listening intently to the answers. Since 1980, Pride Surveys has been doing just that. By tapping directly into the source — our students — we’re able to get a better understanding of the challenges they face, be it homelessness, bullying, mental health issues, drug abuse, and more.

Please browse through the different types of student surveys we offer and find out why more than 14 million students, parents, and faculty members have responded to Pride Surveys. Questions? Please call us today at 800-279-6361 or fill out our quick online contact form.

[1] “Homeless students enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools, by grade, primary nighttime residence, and selected student characteristics: 2009-10 through 2015-16” Retrieved 9 April 2019 at

[2] “Number of Homeless Students Soars” Retrieved 15 April 2019

[3] “Federal Data Summary School Years 2014-15 to 2016-17: Education for Homeless Children and Youth” Retrieved 15 April 2019 at

[4] “Report: Homeless Students Less Likely to Graduate Than Other Low-Income Children” Retrieved 9 April 2019 at

[5] “Students were bullied because of dirty clothes. Washing machines in the locker room will change that.” Retrieved 9 April 2019 at

[6] “Study Snapshot: School Violence and Victimization Among School-Attending Homeless Youth as Compared With Their Non-Homeless Peers” Retrieved 9 April 2019 at

[7]  “Study Snapshot: School Violence and Victimization Among School-Attending Homeless Youth as Compared With Their Non-Homeless Peers” Retrieved 11 April 2019 at

[8] “Behavioral Health among Youth Experiencing Homelessness” Retrieved 11 April 2019 at

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