Having food to eat and a place to sleep are simple things that most of us take for granted. Yet in the US, over half a million individuals experience homelessness on a given night—the equivalent of nearly 17 out of every 10,000 people in the general population. Though various government programs and the work of nonprofit organizations have helped decrease national homelessness during the past decade, some states have seen an increase.
While poverty and homelessness affect individuals of all ages and ethnicities, students are especially impacted. More than a third of university students struggle to avoid hunger and lack stable housing. From elementary school to college, students are expected to meet academic standards that are designed to prepare them for successful futures and careers. But for those struggling with homelessness and poverty, focusing on homework and studying is extremely difficult. This guide includes links to resources and support for students who may be experiencing food insecurity, living in poverty, or lacking stable housing.
Where is Help Available?
If you know someone who needs a place to live or resources to prevent becoming homeless, visit the following websites:
FoodPantries.org — A directory of food banks, nonprofit organizations, and soup kitchens throughout the US. Search food pantries by state, and locate government-subsidized groceries.
Feeding America — The nation’s largest domestic hunger relief organization with a network of 200 food banks across the US. Access tools to find local food banks.
Volunteers of America — The nation’s largest domestic hunger relief organization with a network of 200 food banks across the US. Access tools to find local food banks. — A nonprofit organization that reaches nearly 1.3 million people in over 400 communities each year through hundreds of human service programs. Visit https://www.voa.org/get-help to find services, housing, and communities for senior living and care.
What homelessness and poverty look like in America?
Characteristics of homelessness vary significantly from rural to urban populations. In other words, the definition of homelessness should not be restricted to living in a shelter or on the streets. Additionally, certain populations—such as veterans and the LGBTQ community—have a higher risk of homelessness and poverty than other groups.
How many students are homeless or living in poverty? Estimates suggest millions of Americans are affected by poverty and homelessness every year. Unfortunately, research shows that approximately 50 percent of the homeless population are children under the age of five. These children are too young to be in school and are not included in most estimates, suggesting homelessness and poverty are issues that may be larger and more worrisome than reported.
More Information About Students
National Public Radio — Access an article that discusses a survey published by researchers at Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab. The survey reveals high rates of food and housing insecurity among college students.
The Guardian — This article describes how homeless college students fight to escape poverty through education.
The New York Times — This article cites statistics of homeless college students in the US and discusses the reasons why the issue is so widespread.
TalkPoverty.org — Read about the invisible problem plaguing college students and how colleges are combatting the issue.
PBS.org — Read about how many students are homeless and how Americans can help.
EdSource: Young and Homeless in America — Access this article that discusses the risk factors of becoming a homeless student in America.
The Seattle Times — Read about the pervasiveness of student homelessness in the state of Washington.
The Chronicle of Higher EducationThis article details the experience of homeless college students and explores policy measures being advocated by lawmakers to make it easier for homeless students to qualify as independents.
National Center for Homeless Education — Learn about the potential warning signs of homelessness, which can include: lack of continuity in education; poor health and nutrition; transportation and attendance problems; poor hygiene; lack of privacy or personal space after school; social and behavioral concerns; or certain reactions or statements by the parent, guardian, or child.
What are the causes and consequences of being homeless or living in poverty?
A common assumption is that homeless individuals become mentally ill because of their living situation. In reality, the truth is much more complex.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) - Read about the circumstances affecting homelessness, how rates of homelessness vary across specific populations, and outreach and engagement efforts.
World Health Organization - Learn about mental health conditions, poverty, and development among vulnerable populations across the world.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America - This is a journal article citing studies of mental and substance abuse disorders, causes of high morbidity and mortality rates, and the social impact of homelessness.
American Journal of Public Health - This article discusses a study of nearly 5,000 parents with children born between 1998 and 2000 in 20 large US cities. The study shows the effects of homelessness on children include poorer physical and mental health.
Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness - Access the latest research by this New York City-based policy research organization focused on family homelessness in NYC and throughout the United States.
Physical and Mental Health Among Homeless and Low-Income Students
The physical and mental health of millions of people across the US are negatively affected by a lack of food or a place to sleep. Studies have investigated the connection between homelessness and poverty, and mental and physical health.
The following links include the latest research findings.
- Physical Health
- American Psychological Association (APA) - According to the APA, poor physical health is associated with poverty in general, but seems to be more pronounced among those who are without a home.
- Los Angeles Times - This article explores the links between mental and physical health, and homelessness.
- National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) - Homeless individuals are at relatively high risk for a broad range of acute and chronic illnesses, according to NCBI.
- The Atlantic - This article examines the medical conditions that lead to, and compound, homelessness, and vice versa.
- American Academy of Pediatrics - This is an article that examines child poverty in America, including an overview of the problem, tax policies and direct financial aid opportunities, access to health care, early childhood education, and recommendations to reduce and eliminate child poverty.
- Journal of Poverty, Investment and Development - This paper takes a look at the impacts of poverty on child health and development, and examines strategies to improve the well being of children living in poverty.
- Mental Health
- National Coalition for the Homeless - Read about the relationship between mental illness and homelessness, as well as policy issues that impact both.
- The Guardian - This article explores the link between mental illness and poverty.
- National Health Care for the Homeless Council - This is a Quarterly Research Review of the National HCH Council covering behavioral health among youth experiencing homelessness. Topics include mental health, substance abuse, protective and risk factors, access to behavioral health services, and more.
- Students in Mental Health Research - Access this article providing facts and figures about mental illness and homelessness in the US.
- The Toll Poverty Takes on Children’s Mental Health - by CBS News, this article cites the results of a study by Cornell University exploring the psychological effects of growing up in poverty.
- American Academy of Pediatrics - Read this article that explores the “impact of poverty on mental health, barriers to care, and integrated behavioral health care models that show promise in improving access and outcomes for children and families residing in the contexts of poverty.”
- Urban Institute - This article explains poverty’s toll on mental health.
- Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) - An excerpt from Teaching With Poverty in Mind explores how poverty affects behavior and academic performance.
Helping Alleviate Poverty and Homelessness
Students who are experiencing homelessness may not be able to attend school regularly. They may change schools often, and need special attention to adjust to a new academic setting. Teachers may employ various strategies and behaviors to help students who are experiencing homelessness or living in poverty.
These methods may include:
- Attending to the child’s basic needs. Teachers can provide a community resource list to the student’s family to help meet needs for food, clothing, medical care, shelter, basic hygiene, and transportation.
- Pairing a new student with a “buddy” in the classroom. A “buddy” may help an incoming student settle in to a new school environment by providing a tour of the building, introducing them to other classmates, and making sure the new student has all the necessary books and supplies to complete their classwork.
- Sending a “welcome” letter to parents. Parental support is essential to student success. Teachers may reach out to parents by inviting them to school conferences and giving extra time and attention to their questions and concerns.
- Administering a brief educational assessment. Writing an assessment may help teachers understand the student’s achievement level in reading, math, and writing. An oral interview is also recommended to learn, first hand, about the child’s school history.
- Assigning a “job” to new students. Simple tasks like cleaning the whiteboard or passing out worksheets can help a new student feel connected to their new classroom.
- Providing a structured and consistent daily routine. Experiencing homelessness or living in poverty can mean moving from one shelter to another. Having a classroom that offers consistent behavioral expectations and routines can provide a sense of security.
- Providing extra reassurance. Students who have not had a stable learning experience may have low self-esteem and lack optimism regarding school. Teachers can make an effort to offer extra praise and reassurance to these students.
- Referring the child to the school counselor or outside community agency. Students may have emotional needs that require the attention of a professional counselor or therapist. A student’s emotional well being is critical to learning success.
Other tips for teachers to help students:
- Avoid assigning homework that requires access to technology, such as a TV or computer. Instead, make sure these assignments can be completed in class.
- Offer extra assistance with attending school activities, completing projects, or participating in field trips.
- Allow the student to bring personal possessions to class; they may be the only possessions the student has.
- Be sensitive to tardiness—homeless students may not have an alarm clock or reliable transportation.
- Discuss the child’s homework situation in private, and lend a clipboard or other supplies that can serve as a portable study desk for the student.
- Don’t take away the student’s access to recess as a disciplinary consequence; this may be their only time to run and play.
- Encourage students to find a positive outlet for anger such as drawing, writing, or music.
Many homeless or low-income students are ashamed of their living conditions and choose to hide the truth from classmates. As a result, these students may be uncomfortable sharing their struggles and it may be hard for others—including teachers, health professionals and friends—to recognize the signs of homelessness or poverty. However, concerned classmates can help welcome and support their peers by:
- Recognizing the signs of homelessness and poverty. All students should be aware of the harsh reality of homelessness and poverty in the US and do their part to provide support and encouragement. For example, students can organize events to collect goods for local food banks and homeless shelters.
- Providing Intentional Peer Support (IPS). According to an article by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), IPS models involve peers who share personal experiences with their clients and are viewed as distinct from professionals. IPS is fostered and developed by professional organizations, and can take the form of mutual support or mentorship support. Students who have previously experienced homelessness or poverty can join organizations to mentor or support struggling students.
- Volunteering at food banks, homeless shelters, or soup kitchens. By sacrificing time to help fellow classmates, students can demonstrate unconditional support, and an unwavering commitment to reducing and eliminating hunger and homelessness.
Learn More: Additional Resources & Support
Government departments and nonprofit organizations have introduced programs and initiatives to support students living in homelessness or experiencing poverty.
Below are a few resources:
Council for Exceptional Children - This is a resource for teachers that includes information regarding laws about special education for homeless students, what teachers should know about homeless students with exceptionalities, and considerations for offering an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
Upward Bound - This is a program that provides support to college-bound students through tutoring, cultural enrichment, mentoring, work-study programs, and education or counseling services. The program has been specially designed for students in the following categories: those who are homeless, who are limited in English speaking proficiency, are from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in postsecondary education, those with disabilities, those who are in foster care or aging out of the system, and those who are in other disconnected groups.
GEAR UP - Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) is a discretionary grant program “designed to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education.”
The Campus Kitchens Project (CKP) - Since 2001, the CKP has served students by preparing and delivering meals to rural and urban colleges and high schools.
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)— This program offers nutrition assistance to low-income individuals and families. SNAP is managed by the Food and Nutrition Service, which works with state agencies, nutrition educators, and faith-based and neighborhood organizations to ensure those eligible for nutrition assistance can make informed decisions about applying for the program and can access benefits.
- National Center for Biotechnology Information , Experts by Experience: Peer Support and its Use with the Homeless
- Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction , How Teachers Can Help Students Who Are Homeless
- Family Promise , Homelessness/Poverty Fact Sheet
- National Alliance to End Homelessness , The State of Homelessness in America
- National Public Radio , Hunger and Homelessness Are Widespread Among College Students, Study Finds