For most, college is a time of excitement. While some stress is to be expected, it typically centers around acing exams and earning high marks. However, college can have a whole different set of stressors for those students facing housing insecurity or homelessness. These students often want desperately to pursue higher education as means to create a better life, but lack of stability at home can translate to a turbulent tenure while enrolled. The additional hurdles homelessness causes for students can make meeting graduation requirements challenging and without the proper support and resources, it can be easy to become discouraged.
Of the 195,000 college students surveyed by the Hope Center’s recent report, about half faced housing insecurity, and one in seven reported experiencing homelessness. This puts many students in a position where they are forced to balance rigorous coursework with demanding work commitments just to stay on top of the financial obligations of higher education. Between the cost of living and tuition, it’s not uncommon for these students to feel immense stress when it comes to the college experience. But today, students experiencing homelessness are not without help. Resources exist for everything from food assistance and transportation to child care and housing. Learn what kind of support may be available at your college, find out about funding options for students facing homelessness, and get expert advice on making college work despite your circumstances.
How is Homelessness Defined and Who is Most at Risk?
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 defines homeless youth as those without access to a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” Students sleeping in vehicles, campgrounds, hotels, and transitional shelters, for example, are considered homeless. Individuals without a high school diploma are most at risk for homelessness as are BIPOC and/or LGBTQ+ youth. Young, single parents also face higher risks of homelessness and housing insecurity. Qualifying under the McKinney-Vento Act, these students are eligible for a variety of services.
Which Students Are Most Impacted?
Temple University’s Hope Lab found that certain groups are far more likely to deal with homelessness. About 20% of black students face homelessness as compared to 17% of white students. Indigenous students face the highest race-related rates at 31%, but LGBTQ+ learners face similar numbers. In many cases, the pandemic has only exacerbated these figures. Understanding which college students are most impacted by homelessness and housing instability helps administrators better support these populations before they drop out of college.
Barriers to Enrollment for College Students Facing Homeless
Students facing homelessness encounter a spectrum of barriers to enrolling in and attending college. Understanding these challenges, some of which are discussed below, helps students better prepare for them. It also helps college administrators and faculty members better support these learners both in the classroom and beyond it.
Unreliable food sources
When you don’t know where your next meal is coming from or your last one was too long ago, paying attention in class or studying for a test is more of a struggle than normal. Students who must choose between paying tuition and fees or buying groceries for the week cannot thrive in a classroom environment.
No or unstable housing options
Without stable or fixed housing, students don’t have the resources they need for success. Without a regular and fixed home, they likely don’t have access to Wi-Fi, a desk or workspace, or other tools needed to study. Additionally, worrying about where you’re going to sleep at night takes up a lot of attention and adds to the pressure that already exists with being a college student.
Unemployment or insufficient funds
Unemployment or insufficient funds means added stress over things like buying food and gas, paying for unexpected medical expenses, and even covering tuition and fees for the next semester. It also means students must focus their attention on finding work rather than zeroing in on class assignments.
Lack of affordable childcare
The cost of daycare has increased by 87%, up to $340 per week for one child. Students without a home – or those with unstable housing – and who also have children cannot afford to pay for childcare and keep up with the other costs and expenses related to attending college.
Especially when studying in a city that lacks a robust public transportation system, lack of transportation can wreak havoc on your college experience. Whether you don’t have a car or your car frequently breaks down, having access to reliable transportation is a requirement for success in college.
What Resources are Available to Students Facing Homelessness?
Students facing homelessness have many resources focused on housing stability, healthcare, mental health services, food, and many other needs available to them. This section highlights a variety of services to help students stay focused on their schoolwork rather than on basic needs.
Students facing housing instability or homelessness have several state, federal, and private resources to help them find a place to live and focus on their studies rather than where they’re going to sleep at night.
Section 8 Housing
If your income is 50-70% less than the average median income, you could qualify for a Section 8 voucher. This program helps cover the difference between actual rent and how much you can pay. If selected for Section 8, you pay up to 30% of your income towards rent and utilities. If you have lived separately from your parents/guardians for at least a year and/or have a child under the age of 18, you can qualify as an independent without having to include parental income information.
Students looking for temporary housing, perhaps during the summer months between semesters if their college does not provide year-round dormitories, can use Sublet.com to find affordable, short-term housing solutions. Subletting means students do not need to sign a lease, and they can find both furnished and unfurnished spaces. Sublet also lets users search properties specific to college students to find even better deals and spaces that work for their phases of life.
Transitional Living Program
Organized by the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act and the Office for the Administration of Children & Families, the Transitional Living Program (TLP) supports homeless youth aged 16-22 by providing stable living accommodations in host families, group homes, supervised apartments, and maternity group homes. This program also provides basic life skill resources, educational opportunities, mental and physical healthcare, counseling, and job attainment skills.
Reasons for food scarcity run the gamut from living in a food desert where buying affordable or quality fresh food is difficult to not having money to purchase meals. Regardless of the reason, several resources exist to help ensure students get healthy, balanced meals to fuel them through college.
Typically, college students do not qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), but those experiencing homelessness or instability can qualify under special eligibility extensions. Benefits are based on how much it should cost to buy nutritious and affordable meals for your household in your part of the country. SNAP benefits cover the cost of approved food items as well as seeds and plants to grow foods. You cannot purchase prepared foods, hot foods, or non-food items such as pet food, grooming items, or household products.
Campus Food Pantry
Many colleges now provide campus-based food pantries that students can shop in for free. In addition to providing shelf-stable foods such as pasta, bread, and rice, students also have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and frozen products. If food scarcity is a concern for you, ask your college whether it provides a food pantry. If it doesn’t currently, ask if it would be willing to set up something similar to what the University of California at Berkeley provides.
Aside from food pantries provided on college campuses, many local and national food banks exist. In addition to providing free uncooked and prepared meals, these centers may also help subsidize grocery costs, maintain an on-site food kitchen, or offer weekly box pickups on or around campus. FoodPantries.org is a great resource for finding food banks in your area and learning about various services available to eligible individuals.
Finding a balance between school and personal and professional responsibilities can challenge any learner but especially those who also worry about their housing situation. Both campus-based and community resources exist to help with this issue.
Child Care and Development Fund
The federal government provides the Child Care and Development Fund to support low-income families needing financial support with childcare while working full-time and/or completing higher education. Managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, this fund provides support for children aged 13 and under or aged 19 and under who cannot care for themselves. The department provides an online questionnaire for determining eligibility.
Campus-based Child Care
Recognizing the undue burden placed on homeless students who also have young children, some schools now provide subsidized, on-site childcare for qualifying students. At Gateway Community and Technical College, for instance, eligible students receive childcare vouchers, subsidized by the college, that ensures students pay only what they can afford.
Some foundations and nonprofits offer scholarships students can use to pay for tuition, purchase books, buy a vehicle, or cover the cost of childcare. In addition to local offerings, check for national awards as well. The Soroptimist, for example, offers the Live Your Dream Awards for low-income women with children who are supporting themselves and their dependents. Eligible awardees receive up to $16,000 in funding.
Several federal, state, and private resources exist in the healthcare arena to ensure students experiencing homelessness have free and/or subsidized access to the services needed to stay healthy. A few options are discussed in this section.
Under the Affordable Care Act, some students experiencing homelessness qualify for healthcare coverage via Medicaid. If they are over the age of 19, this depends on if their state of residence has expanded Medicaid to cover adults. Students who aged out of the state foster system and are under age 26 may also qualify. Students must not earn more than 133% of the Federal Poverty Level annually. Individuals apply for Medicaid via the healthcare.gov website to learn if they are eligible.
Nearly every college campus maintains a health and wellness center staffed by qualified professionals who provide basic services and make referrals for more advanced needs. These health centers are typically free for students and provide both appointments and walk-in services. They dispense basic medications for things like the cold and flu, draw blood, offer contraceptives, provide immunizations, and give care for basic injuries. Many schools now also provide COVID-19 testing and immunizations.
National Health Care for the Homeless Council
In addition to advocating for more robust and extensive healthcare services for individuals experiencing homelessness, the National Health Care for the Homeless Council also connects housing insecure and homeless students to both local and national basic healthcare providers. Browse the HCH Grantee Directory to find federal-funded Health Care for the Homeless recipients and providers. The database is arranged by location to make it easier for users to find appropriate services.
Mental Health Services
Handling the stress of homelessness in addition to studying for tests and passing classes can overwhelm even the most robust student. Taking care of your mental health is just as important as your physical health. Thankfully, several resources exist to keep you mentally healthy.
As part of their mental health services, many colleges and universities provide free individual and group counseling sessions to students. University counselors are licensed professionals trained in addressing a variety of mental and emotional health issues. In addition to in-person counseling, many schools also offer Zoom sessions, acute psychological care and referrals, personal crises support, and even health and wellness coaches to help individuals align their physical and mental health.
Regularly raising your endorphins and moving your body is one of the best ways to stave off feelings of anxiety or depression. As part of student fees, most colleges provide gym facilities that include basic equipment like treadmills, exercise bikes, rowing machines, and weights. Others also provide swimming pools, running/walking tracks, tennis courts, and other sports facilities.
Available to college students across the country, ULifeline provides free, anonymous, and confidential mental health support services. Funded via The Jed Foundation, this charity also partners with colleges and universities to provide local and in-person services. Students can find support for issues like stress, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, suicidal behavior, and many others.
Students sometimes find they need additional support outside the main categories already reviewed. Here are a few more to consider.
If you can’t afford a laptop or desktop computer for your studies, you may find a university that provides these resources free of charge as part of your student fees. Northwest Missouri State University, for example, offers this service.
Open Educational Resources
Recognizing the prohibitive cost of many textbooks for low-income and housing unstable students, some schools now use textbooks with free and open use available at no cost. The Open Textbook Library provides access to these works.
Subsidized Bus Passes
Getting to school without reliable transportation can wreak havoc on your educational experience. Some transit systems, like TriMet, provide reduced fares for low-income students.
On-Campus Support for Housing Insecure Students
Aside from national, state, and local support services that cater to students experiencing homelessness, many colleges support these learners without them ever leaving campus. Review these examples and see if your school offers any of them.
Several institutions provide year-round housing for learners who do not have secure and stable housing during the summer months and holidays. Boston University is one example.
Another necessity students experiencing homelessness may encounter is a lack of appropriate clothes for attending classes, working, or applying to jobs. Some colleges, like San Diego Community College District, provide free clothing closets for students.
Financial Aid Support
In addition to awards for students experiencing homelessness offered by foundations and private entities, some colleges also offer scholarships geared towards these learners. Arizona State University, for example, provides the Garcia Hope for Homelessness Scholarship.
Funding Your Education: How Can Students Facing Homelessness Pay for College?
Paying for college can feel daunting, especially when you don’t have access to secure housing. Students facing homelessness may think paying for higher education is impossible, but plenty of options exist to help them.
Scholarships for Students Experiencing Homelessness
This award supports students eligible for McKinney-Vento assistance or those who experienced homelessness in the previous six years. Applications are due May 28th, and award amounts vary.
Chicago Coalition for the Homeless Scholarship
Students aged 24 or younger who either are active with or are former clients of the Coalition can apply for this $2,500 scholarship if they possess a 2.5 GPA or higher and completed the FAFSA. Applications are due April 15th.
This $2,000 scholarship covers tuition for learners experiencing housing instability or homelessness and provides mentors to support them through their college years. Applications are due March 31st.
Hope Starts Here Scholarship
Students aged 21 or younger who have experienced homelessness can apply for this award if they live in New Hampshire. Award amounts vary, and applications are due May 1st.
Foster Hope Academic Award
For those attending an accredited Wisconsin college, this award supports students who experienced homelessness or housing insecurity in childhood. Award amounts vary, and applications are due June 5th.
Scholarships for Low-Income Students
Gates Millennium Scholarship
This award supports low-income students of color who demonstrate exceptional academic achievement. Applicants need a 3.3 or higher GPA and eligibility for the Pell Grant. Award amounts vary, and applications are due September 15th.
Horatio Alger National Scholarship
This $25,000 award supports students who overcame great obstacles, including financial hardship, to make it to college. Applicants must demonstrate financial need and submit applications by March 15th.
JuJu Foundation Scholarship
Students facing economic hardship can apply for this $5,000 award by writing an essay about their needs, intents, ambitions, and goals. Applications must be received by June 30th.
Women with Promise Scholarship
These awards range from $250 to $5,000 and support women in desperate need of financial support for tuition, books, and fees. Applicants must
Laila Uthman Scholarship
This $1,000 academic award supports learners who experienced academic or personal difficulties and who are planning to enroll in a community college, vocational school, or four-year college. Application deadlines vary.
Federal Financial Aid (FASFA)
The Free Application for Student Financial Aid (FAFSA) identifies students who qualify for federal student aid in the form of grants, work-study funds, and loans. Students experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity may need to take a couple of extra steps, but it is worth their time to fill out the application.
After answering that you are homeless or at risk of becoming so, you do not have to provide your parents’ or guardians’ financial information. You also do not need a living address, but you do need a mailing address of a friend or relative who can receive mail for you.
You may also need to provide documentation confirming your homeless status. Examples of those who can confirm this include the homeless liaison at your high school, an employee of a homeless youth center, or someone in an official role who knows your housing status.
Insight into College & Homelessness:
Insight from an Expert
Lowell K. Davis, a Dallas native, graduated from Hampton University with a bachelor’s degree in English Arts-Secondary Education. He has a master’s degree in Counseling with an emphasis on College Student Development and holds a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration and Student Affairs with an emphasis on the History of Education from Indiana University. Lowell serves as the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at the University of North Carolina – Wilmington. He served as the Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Success at Western Carolina University (WCU) and came to WCU from the University of Alabama, where he rose through the ranks of both Academic and Student Affairs.
Q: What’s the most important piece of advice you would give students facing homelessness?
A: Students who are in college and facing homelessness should understand that they are not alone and realize that colleges and universities are here to support all students. First of all, I would encourage students to visit their Office of Financial Aid. Students need to let people know they are homeless and seek out any additional financial aid that may be available to them based on their status as homeless students. Students are oftentimes eligible for additional aid through the FASFA, and they may not be aware.
Q: Where can these learners turn for help?
A: These students should visit offices of Student Affairs on their campuses. Many of these professionals are equipped to support ALL students. Additionally, they may be aware of community support that is available to them. Check with your Dean of Students office particularly. You will find this office on almost all university campuses, and I would say you need to start there first.
Q: What should faculty/administrators know about these students?
A: These students are enrolled at our universities, and we have to support them. We need to know that they were admitted to our campuses, and they deserve to be here. We should be aware of the resources available to these students and do whatever we can to support them. We must understand that they have a circumstance, and they are using college as a way to make their situation better. Also, do not forget about the summer when university housing may not be available.