The Secret Subpopulation – Our Homeless Students

When most of us think of homelessness, we have a narrow image in our minds of people living on the street. There are actually many circumstances that can qualify a student as homeless and that can impact their experience in your classroom. According to a recent study, under-identification of homeless students was a problem in almost half of districts. To make sure under-identification isn’t a problem in your school and that our homeless students are getting the support they need, here’s how you can help.
Understand the qualifications. According to the HUD definition, if students are not in regular, fixed, and stable housing, they are homeless. So if students live in a car or multi-family housing without adequate sleeping space for each person, if their family doesn’t have a consistent lease and so move often, or if they are fleeing a dangerous situation and don’t have the resources to establish a stable residence, they are technically homeless. Regularly being without utilities can also qualify as homelessness. Click here for more details.  
Look for the indicators. Families that may qualify as homeless are not readily identifying themselves. They may not think of themselves as homeless, not know they qualify for support, or be embarrassed. And if the family is undocumented, they may worry about consequences if they share too much about their situation. Teachers can be vital, then, in identifying our homeless students. Keep an eye out for students who are:

  • Often unprepared for class and/or without basic supplies
  • Often out of uniform or wearing the same clothes consistently
  • More secretive about home life
  • Hesitant or unsure when filling out forms or answering questions about family situation
  • Coming early or staying late at school
  • More assertive at lunch or snack time, eating quickly and asking for more or asking friends for food

Ask for help. The idea of formally identifying a homeless student and providing them support is intimidating for teachers. Fortunately, there are people in place to help you. If you suspect that a student is homeless, reach out to a social worker or other student support leader on your campus and ask for their help. It is the whole school’s responsibility and your district is required by the McKinney-Vento Act to provide supports, so you’re not alone. You can find details about the law here.
Adapt your expectations. At YES Prep and probably in most of your schools, there are specific expectations for students – what students bring to class every day, what they wear to school, how homework works, etc. And many of our schools also have consequences for these things, possibly involving staying after school. What we need to realize, though, is that upholding these blanket expectations and consequences for our homeless students is not always appropriate. We may be inadvertently punishing them for things that are beyond their control. If you have students you suspect of being homeless, talk to your grade level team about providing the particular student with supplies, uniforms, and any other accommodations they may need in order to be successful.
For homeless students, school can either be a place where they feel nervous, judged, and alone or a place where they feel secure and supported. Let’s make sure it’s the latter by getting to know the individual needs of our students and supporting the whole child.

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