Schools play key role in supporting homeless students — if they can identify them

School districts are key to supporting homeless students and helping them overcome the challenges they face, however, this population is typically undercounted due to difficulties related to identification, according to the report Supporting students experiencing homelessness: District approaches to supports and funding, released by the Learning Policy Institute in October.

This results in insufficient support for a group of young people who greatly need it as they combat instability, school mobility and increased risk to their physical and social-emotional health and may struggle with educational engagement and achievement.

In the 2019–20 academic year, roughly 1.3 million public school students in grades K-12 were identified as homeless, but that is most likely an undercount, according to the report. Students’ living arrangements may range from residing with their family in a shelter or motel to being doubled up with another family to being unsheltered or unaccompanied.

Still, many homeless students are resilient and find success both academically and in life.

The report looks at how five school districts around the country, all of which have been recognized for their commitment to supporting homeless students, work to serve the population. The districts are Browning Public Schools, Cincinnati Public Schools, Polk County Public Schools, Santa Fe Public Schools and Spokane Public Schools.

Despite using creative strategies to identify homeless students, the districts were sure they did not connect with all students who fall into the group. Strategies included educating school staff, launching public information campaigns and doing outreach to at-risk families while highlighting school-run programs like food pantries. Additionally, they established relationships with outside organizations that serve local families to help increase referrals.

To safeguard the educational rights of students, the districts provided a variety of services either via their homeless program or community-based organizations. They used partnerships to provide students with essential items like food, school supplies, clothes and hygiene products; transportation to and from school; academic services including supports like tutoring; mental and physical health supports; providing families information on supports like child care and counseling; and specialized support for unaccompanied students.

Essential to a district’s ability to support these students is staffing for their homeless programs and the availability of school-based services.

The districts had all won McKinney-Vento Act grants that funded liaisons to focus on coordinating support for homeless students. Other helpful staff positions included a transportation coordinator, counselor, grant writer, school-level coordinator and shelter-based coordinator, according to the report.

“Beyond the homeless program staff, study districts utilized school and district staffing to extend the reach of the homeless program. In study districts in which schools provided many supports for vulnerable students, homeless program staff were able to make referrals, and students experiencing homelessness were folded into existing programs,” the report states.


Districts included in the report had varying levels of funding available for their homeless programs, ranging from spending $128 to $556 per student. The report notes that these amounts don’t account for the full cost of support provided by a district as they often connect students and families to services that don’t come from homeless program funding.

Federal funds like McKinney-Vento and Title I, Part A dollars, private and grant funds were used across the board while Santa Fe and Spokane public schools also had state dollars and Cincinnati Public Schools used district funds.

Districts were “dependent on grants and donations from community groups and other philanthropic organizations to supplement funding provided by the districts’ homeless programs.”

This is partially because districts find federal and state dollars inadequate. To support their programs, the districts raise and blend public and private funding.


The report includes policy recommendations at the federal, state and district levels.

It suggests that policymakers at the federal and state levels consider adopting policies to aid in eliminating child poverty and ensuring families stay housed.

State policymakers could allocate resources so the most vulnerable students are prioritizing in funding allotments and federal policymakers could make sure financial resources are made available to cover staffing and support costs for districts’ homeless programs and student and family needs.

The McKinney-Vento funding formula could also be revised by Congress to target funds based on the number of homeless students enrolled.

Policymakers at all levels, including district leaders, can make a web of school-based supports more readily available by investing in the community schools model.