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Supporting Students Experiencing Homelessness: District Approaches to Supports and Funding

Elementary school boy getting off a yellow school bus.

Approximately 1.3 million k–12 public school students across the United States were identified as experiencing homelessness in 2019–20. However, given that identifying students experiencing homelessness is a significant challenge for many districts, this estimate is likely an undercount. Students experiencing homelessness endure a range of living arrangements. Some live with their families in motels, hotels, or doubled or tripled up with family or friends. Others live on the streets or in shelters. In all these situations, students can lose a sense of security and stability. They may also struggle to find a quiet place to complete homework, to attend school regularly, and to remain engaged in school. Students living unaccompanied after being kicked out can face especially harmful circumstances. In all cases, the stress, instability, trauma, and school mobility created by homelessness increase risks to physical, social, and emotional health and to educational engagement and achievement. Further, housing instability can have negative impacts on students even after the period of homelessness ends.

The stress, instability, trauma, and school mobility created by homelessness increases risks to physical, social, and emotional health and to educational engagement and achievement.

Despite the obstacles students experiencing homelessness face, many display resilience and achieve academic and life success. Districts play an important role in creating environments and coordinating a set of supports that help these students engage in their education and overcome the challenges they face. Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, districts are required to ensure that students experiencing homelessness have the same access to appropriate education as other students. However, districts face a number of challenges in identifying and serving students experiencing homelessness. The result is under-identification of students and insufficient support provided to students.

This study examines how five school districts—Browning Public Schools, Cincinnati Public Schools, Polk County Public Schools, Santa Fe Public Schools, and Spokane Public Schools—work to serve students experiencing homelessness. Each of these districts has been recognized for its commitment to addressing the needs of students experiencing homelessness. This report aims to better understand the assets and needs of students experiencing homelessness, what districts are able to do to address these needs, how districts fund and staff their programs, and the challenges districts confront in meeting the needs of students experiencing homelessness.


Districts in this study used many creative strategies to identify students experiencing homelessness, but all were certain that they had not reached all eligible students.

Identifying students experiencing homelessness is challenging. The population of students experiencing homelessness is constantly changing, and families or students may not self-identify due to a lack of knowledge about available rights and services, fear, or embarrassment. To identify students eligible for support and services, program staff in this study used multiple strategies. They educated school personnel and staff from community-based organizations that serve vulnerable populations, conducted public information campaigns, and conducted outreach to families at risk of homelessness through district- and school-run programs, such as food pantries. Program staff also developed relationships with organizations serving families experiencing homelessness to increase referrals. Even with multiple approaches to identifying students, homeless program staff in all districts in this study stated that having additional staff capacity to conduct community outreach would allow them to identify more students experiencing homelessness.

Districts in this study strived to provide a wide range of services to students experiencing homelessness to safeguard their educational rights.

Across all districts in this study, program staff worked to support students experiencing homelessness by coordinating necessary services provided by the district homeless program, schools, and community-based organizations. Study districts leveraged partnerships to provide:

  • Essential items. District homeless programs prioritized providing students and their families with basic necessities, including food, hygiene products, clothing, shoes, and school supplies.
  • Transportation. As required by the McKinney-Vento Act, all districts in this study provided transportation to students experiencing homelessness to and from their schools and, in many cases, to extracurricular activities. Some districts also provided transportation services to families. Program staff consistently described transportation as a large cost for their programs.
  • Academic services. All of the district programs in the study provided students experiencing homelessness some sort of additional academic support, such as tutoring, summer programs, or assistance with post–high school planning.
  • Physical and mental health supports. Services mentioned by homeless program staff included physicals; visual and hearing screenings; mobile medical services; counseling; and classes on safety, safe sexual behaviors, and recognizing teen dating abuse.
  • Specialized support for unaccompanied youth. District staff identified unaccompanied youth as having distinct and acute needs. Additional efforts to support these students included embedding staff at a local youth shelter, training youth shelter staff on educational options for students, and providing prepaid cell phones to youth.
  • Support for families. Homeless program staff described linking families to child care, counseling, transportation, and other supports. They also reported that, when they had the resources and knew of the need, they provided families with emergency funding for medical bills, housing deposits, overdue utility bills, or car repairs in order to prevent families from losing their homes.

Staffing of homeless programs and the availability of school-based services for vulnerable students were essential for study districts’ ability to support students experiencing homelessness.

All districts in the study had applied for and won McKinney-Vento Act grants, which funded liaisons with dedicated time to provide and coordinate support for students experiencing homelessness. Additional homeless program staff positions in the study districts included transportation coordinator, counselor, grant writer, school-level coordinator, and shelter-based coordinator. 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 available funds for homeless programs in this study varied considerably across study districts, with spending between $128 and $556 per student.

Funding sources included federal funds (i.e., McKinney-Vento funding and Title I, Part A), private funding, and grants in all districts in the study; state funds for Santa Fe and Spokane Public Schools; and district funds in Cincinnati Public Schools. Districts were dependent on grants and donations from community groups and other philanthropic organizations to supplement funding provided by the districts’ homeless programs. It is important to note that the per-student spending amount does not represent the full cost of the support provided by the districts. When possible, homeless program staff in this study connected students and families to available resources in schools and in the community that do not rely on their districts’ homeless program funding.

Federal and state funds are inadequate, so districts needed to raise funds and blend and braid public and private funding to support their homeless programs.

While multiple sources of federal and state funding can be used to support these students, there are few funding sources that are required to be spent on students experiencing homelessness. The McKinney-Vento Act is the primary federal funding source to support eliminating barriers to educational access for students experiencing homelessness. However, these funds are not allocated to states based on the number of students experiencing homelessness. Instead, states are allocated funds based on the percentage of Title I funding they receive. States then use a competitive grant process to distribute funds to districts. This leads to a large variation in funding per student experiencing homelessness across states, with many districts receiving no McKinney-Vento funds despite serving eligible students. Further, restrictions on the uses of McKinney-Vento and Title I funds limit districts’ ability to address certain needs related to students’ housing instability.

All districts in the study received McKinney-Vento funds but still found it necessary to seek additional funding given insufficient public education support and constraints on expenditures. Private funding, often provided by district nonprofit organizations and philanthropies, expanded the amount of resources and enabled programs to meet students’ nonacademic needs, as it did not come with the funding restrictions of federal education funding streams.

Policy Recommendations

Students experiencing homelessness face a complex set of issues that challenge their health, emotional well-being, and access to educational opportunities. Federal, state, and district policymakers can consider the following recommendations to strengthen support and learning for this vulnerable student group.

Federal and state policymakers could adopt policies that help eliminate child poverty and keep families housed. The most effective way to mitigate the effects of experiencing homelessness is to prevent it. Federal and state policymakers can help prevent students from experiencing homelessness by adopting policies that reduce child poverty, such as the 15% increase in household SNAP benefits and expansion of the child tax credit included in the American Rescue Plan Act, and policies that support affordable housing, such as a renter’s tax credit and an expansion of the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program.

In addition to adopting policies that help students avoid experiencing homelessness, federal, state, and district policymakers can consider the following recommendations.

Federal policymakers could ensure that financial resources are available to cover the cost of staffing and supports for district homeless programs as well as students’ and families’ needs. The McKinney-Vento Act recognizes the multiple needs children experiencing homelessness have and requires districts to identify and serve those students. However, the federal government does not provide necessary funding to support identification and services to all local education agencies serving students experiencing homelessness, nor does it provide resources in proportion to the number of students to be served. The McKinney-Vento program was funded at $106.5 million in 2020–21, which equates to less than $82 per student identified as experiencing homelessness, and only a fraction of districts with such students received funding.

The Education for Homeless Children and Youth program should be fully funded to enable districts to meet its mandate. Funds should be sufficient, proportional to need, and stable to allow hiring of staff to help identify students experiencing homelessness and coordinate supports. The one-time funding provided under the emergency American Rescue Plan Act to support students experiencing homelessness may provide Congress with a guide to what would be needed to fully fund this program each year. The funding for students experiencing homelessness under the American Rescue Plan totaled $800 million, approximately $530 per student experiencing homelessness based on 2017–18 counts. This level of funding likely comes closer to providing districts what is required to fund their homeless programs; such funding needs to be provided on an annual basis to be effective in meeting the ongoing and acute needs of this student population.

Restrictions on the use of McKinney-Vento funds limited the ability of homeless program staff in our study to support families and unaccompanied youth by keeping them housed. To better support students outside schoolhouse doors, federal policymakers could also expand the allowable use of McKinney-Vento funds to include families’ and students’ expenses for emergency needs, such as utilities or rent, medical expenses that compete with rent, or hotel stays when no shelter is available.

Congress could revise the McKinney-Vento funding formula to target funds based on the enrollment of students experiencing homelessness. To promote better identification of students experiencing homelessness, the McKinney-Vento allocation formula could take into account the enrollment of students experiencing homelessness.

However, given that some districts do not have the resources to identify all of their students experiencing homelessness, a new funding system may need to be based initially on both the actual count of students experiencing homelessness and on a count of the number of students from low-income families in the district. Policymakers might consider students who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Because this program relies on a single measure of self-reported income at a point in time and because it extends to 185% of the federal poverty line, representing a wide range of family circumstances, other measures might also be considered. For example, many states consider “direct certification” measures that are based on a student’s family participation in a broad universe of public programs, such as SNAP. The funding should be consistent from one year to the next, allowing local education agencies to hire needed staff on a long-term basis.

Over time, more reliable counts of students experiencing homelessness would allow policymakers and educators to monitor districts and redress programs or services that are not adequately supporting students.

State policymakers could allocate resources so that students who are most vulnerable, such as those experiencing homelessness, are prioritized in funding allocations. At the state level, policymakers have a number of potential vehicles for funding assistance for students experiencing homelessness. One option is to include a weight for students experiencing homelessness in the state’s primary funding formula, although currently no state does so. Another option is to include an additional annual allotment specifically targeted toward supporting students experiencing homelessness, as Massachusetts and New York have done. A third option, which Washington has employed, is to provide grants to communities to coordinate services across local agencies that serve students and families experiencing homelessness. California provides an additional example, with a one-time allocation outside of the school funding formula based on the number of enrolled students experiencing homelessness.

As students experiencing homelessness are more likely to be enrolled in high-poverty schools, states can help support programs for students experiencing homelessness by targeting additional funding to districts with high concentrations of low-income families. There are currently 16 states that allocate additional funding to districts with high concentrations of students from low-income families.

Federal, state, and district policymakers can ensure students have access to a readily available web of school-based supports by increasing investments in community schools. Districts can support the success of these students by developing a school-based web of support. For instance, community schools are a site-based strategy for provisioning students with a wide range of in- and out-of-school supports by coordinating partnerships between the education system, nonprofit sector, and local government agencies and promoting strong family and community engagement.

Federal policymakers could build on the American Rescue Plan’s one-time support for community schools by increasing funding for the federal Full-Service Community Schools Program and investing in specialized instructional support personnel, including social workers, school counselors, and psychologists. States also can look to investments made in California, New Mexico, and New York for examples of how they can structure their own community school investments.

Supporting Students Experiencing Homelessness: District Approaches to Supports and Funding by Stephanie Levin, Daniel Espinoza, and Michael Griffith 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.