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Federal and State Resources for Students Experiencing Homelessness

Child talking to an adult.

Approximately 1.3 million public school students in the United States were identified as experiencing some form of homelessness in 2019–20. Due to their unstable living situations, students experiencing homelessness often have additional educational, social, emotional, and material needs compared to their stably housed peers. Housing instability can result in increased absences from school and can lead to students changing schools midyear. Each school move can disrupt students’ education and limit opportunities to learn.

The multiple challenges associated with homelessness negatively impact student learning outcomes. Reading, mathematics, and science scores for students experiencing homelessness tend to be lower than those of their peers, including those from economically disadvantaged but residentially stable families. For example, in 2018–19, just 30% of students experiencing homelessness reached academic proficiency on state standards in reading and language arts, compared to 38% of their economically disadvantaged peers. Performance was lower, and the gap was even larger, in mathematics and science. The experience of homelessness also significantly reduces the likelihood that students will graduate and go on to college.

Students experiencing homelessness are not a homogenous group; certain groups of students are more likely to experience homelessness. Due to factors such as inequitable access to housing and economic opportunity, rates of homelessness tend to be higher among students of color. For example, in 2019–20, Black students accounted for approximately 27% of students identified as experiencing homelessness, but just 15% of all students—a rate of homelessness that is 80% higher than Black students’ representation in the student population. National data also show that around 17% of students experiencing homelessness are English learners and that 19% are students with disabilities, underscoring that these students may require a combination of educational services.

There is a need for focused attention on the most vulnerable students, including those experiencing homelessness, particularly as the nation seeks to recover from the pandemic. However, districts face barriers in supporting students experiencing homelessness. These barriers include unstable funding or funding that is inadequate to meet student needs and restrictions on the allowable uses of federal funds, which limits districts’ ability to support noneducational expenses, such as emergency housing. In addition, prior research has found that funding may help districts identify students experiencing homelessness, and without sufficient funding, fewer students are able to be identified as needing support, leading to inadequate services.

There is a need for focused attention on the most vulnerable students, including those experiencing homelessness, particularly as the nation seeks to recover from the pandemic.

The purpose of the report is to examine the federal and state funding sources directed to schools to support students experiencing homelessness. We review the provisions of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the major federal effort to support students experiencing homelessness. Next, we describe currently available federal and state financial supports for students experiencing homelessness. We conclude with policy recommendations concerning funding amounts, distribution, and data collection that may improve educational opportunities for these students.


The major federal educational effort to support students experiencing homelessness—the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987—is inadequately funded to accomplish its goals.

McKinney-Vento provides annual grants to states to support programs for students experiencing homelessness. Between 2010 and 2020, the population of students experiencing homelessness increased by 39%. Funding for the McKinney-Vento program also increased from $65.4 million to $101.5 million, a $36.1 million increase, between the same years. This 55% increase, however, moved the funding level only from $71 per identified pupil to $79 per identified pupil, a fraction of what districts must actually spend to meet students’ needs.

States do not receive funding based on the number of students experiencing homelessness, and most districts serving students experiencing homelessness do not receive federal funds to support them.

McKinney-Vento funds are distributed to states based on their proportions of Title I, Part A funding. Because the funding formula is not based on the actual number of students experiencing homelessness, there is large variation in the funding each state receives per identified student experiencing homelessness—ranging from $38 in Utah to $287 in Vermont. Further, because states distribute these limited funds to districts through a competitive grant process, the amount of funding is not proportional to the number of students served, and most districts do not receive these grants at all.

The most generous investment at the federal level was a temporary, one-time investment through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

ARPA contained $800 million in one-time funding to states to support students experiencing homelessness, distributed as two sums: The first $200 million was distributed to LEAs on a competitive basis; the second was awarded to local education agencies’ (LEAs) according to formula subgrants that were based on Title I, Part A payments and districts’ identified enrollment of students experiencing homelessness, whichever was greater.

Only four states have allocated resources specifically to support students experiencing homelessness.

In 2021, California appropriated $183.3 million in one-time funding to districts through allocations of $1,000 per student experiencing homelessness. Massachusetts’s school funding formula includes a $23 million transportation reimbursement for school districts providing transportation that supports students experiencing homelessness who attend their school of origin. New York allocated $22.6 million to support the education and transportation of students experiencing homelessness in fiscal year 2023. Washington state’s Homeless Student Stability Program provides $3.2 million across two competitive grants to provide educational stability by promoting housing stability within the school districts; to increase identification of students experiencing homelessness; and to encourage the development of sustainable, collaborative strategies between housing and education partners.

Policy Recommendations

These findings point to lack of funding as one of the primary barriers to providing students experiencing homelessness with the education they are entitled to and need. Federal and state policymakers can consider increasing funding, making changes to funding distribution, expanding allowable uses of federal funding, and improving the quality of information about the use of funds. And, because the most effective way to mitigate the negative effects of experiencing homelessness on students is to prevent it, policymakers should also ensure that financial resources are available to communities and schools to help keep students housed. Potential strategies include:

  1. Increase federal and state funding to help LEAs implement the federal protections, services, and supports afforded to students experiencing homelessness. Policymakers at both state and federal levels should consider increasing their investments to support students experiencing homelessness. Funding should consider LEAs’ costs associated with meeting the multiple needs of students experiencing homelessness. These may include a district homeless liaison; school-level liaisons; transportation; supplies; and providing ready access to a web of supports, such as social-emotional, academic, health, nutrition, and housing services.

    1. At the federal level, annual funding for the McKinney-Vento program ($129 million for fiscal year 2023) should be substantially increased to allow LEAs to meet the law’s mandates. While additional research is needed to help determine the exact amount of funding necessary to support the educational needs of students experiencing homelessness, a good starting point would be to use the $800 million in funding provided by ARPA for student homeless programs as a baseline for future annual financing, which would amount to approximately $625 per student experiencing homelessness, based on pre-COVID-19 counts.
    2. At the state level, states should provide consistent funding that complements federal funds and is targeted to local needs. State policymakers have several potential vehicles for funding assistance that supports students experiencing homelessness, including developing a student funding formula that includes an additional weight for these students, providing a targeted annual allotment for needed services like transportation or social supports, and providing grants to communities to coordinate services across local agencies. Whatever approach is used, the funding should be consistent and designed to supplement federal funding in ways that address acute needs in the given state and local contexts.
  2. Consider revising the McKinney-Vento funding formula to target funds, at least in part, based on the enrollment of students experiencing homelessness. The current McKinney-Vento funding level, its allocation formula, and competitive grant process result in too few dollars, wide variation in the amount of funding to states per student experiencing homelessness, and most districts not receiving any of these federal funds. Thus, in addition to increasing the overall McKinney-Vento funding levels, shifting the allocation formula away from using only a competitive grant structure and toward an entitlement model based—at least in part—on the actual number of students experiencing homelessness in each LEA could help distribute funds to support far more students’ needs. The recent allocation of $800 million in ARPA funds for students experiencing homelessness, which combined competitive grants with formula-driven funding, was a step in this direction. In addition, because many districts are unable to identify all of their students experiencing homelessness, a new funding formula might initially take into account poverty levels as well as numbers of students identified as experiencing homelessness.

  3. Expand allowable uses of federal funds for supporting students and families experiencing homelessness. Federal policymakers could also increase supports for students experiencing homelessness by better aligning the federal definitions of “homeless” used by federal housing and education programs. Using different definitions can make it difficult for local agencies to provide comprehensive wraparound supports to students and their families experiencing homelessness. Federal policymakers could align the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) definition of “homeless” used for homeless assistance programs with the one established by the McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program. This would enable students who are living in motels or who are doubled up with other families to qualify for housing and homeless assistance, administered by HUD.

    Another strategy for increasing supports is to expand the allowable uses of funds of the McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program. This might include allowing payment for emergency utilities or rent, emergency medical expenses that compete with rent, or emergency hotel stays when no shelter is available. These supports may help prevent students and their families from becoming unhoused or facing a disruptive move.

  4. Improve the quality of information about the use of funds to assist students experiencing homelessness. States and LEAs could help improve supports for students experiencing homelessness by promoting greater use of data on existing uses of funds in order to inform technical assistance and continuous improvement. Starting in the 2022–23 school year and for the following 2 school years, the U.S. Department of Education will require state education agencies (SEAs) to report how much funding LEAs are reserving under the Title I set-aside to support students experiencing homelessness and the number of students served. The Department of Education could make this reporting permanent and also require LEAs to report data to SEAs about how they are spending the funds. SEAs could leverage McKinney-Vento’s state reservation to support capacity to review these data. SEAs could use data to identify promising approaches to disseminate and to guide technical assistance to all LEAs, including those not yet receiving McKinney-Vento funding.

Federal and State Resources for Students Experiencing Homelessness by Daniel Espinoza, Michael Griffith, Dion Burns, and Patrick M. Shields is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

This research was supported by the Raikes Foundation. Core operating support for LPI is provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Sandler Foundation, and MacKenzie Scott. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of our funders.