Supporting Homeless Students

Updated October 25, 2022

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Resources and Advocacy for K-12 and College Students Experiencing Homelessness

According to data released by the Department of Justice, more than 1.7 million teenagers experience homelessness within the United States each year – a number that is considered low given students' reticence to share details of their living situations. Education should be a basic right of every citizen, yet far too many students who find themselves without permanent housing aren't aware of the wealth of resources available to them – both on campus and in their local communities. The following guide addresses this as well as other common barriers to academic success, current legislation, and meaningful ways that educators and administrators can make a difference for both K-12 and college students experiencing homelessness.

Fast Facts on Student Homelessness

For too long and for too many students, the issue of homelessness has not received the attention it deserves. This is especially true when considering the dramatic rise of homelessness within K-12 students over the previous decade. The statistics below show just how pervasive this issue is:

Between 2008 and 2014, homelessness in public school increased by 90 percent, jumping from 680,000 to more than 1.3 million students.

Approximately 35 percent of America's homeless population is under the age of 24.

As of 2017, approximately 14 percent of community college students were homeless, and up to two-thirds don't have enough food.

Sources: The Atlantic, U.S. Department of Education, Department of Housing and Urban Development

Reality for Homeless Students: Barriers to Academic Success

When basic needs such as running water, food, and a bed cannot be met, it stands to reason that academic success suffers. By gaining a better understanding of all the obstacles homeless students face, administrators and educators are better equipped to be an empathetic voice that advocates for them in the classroom and beyond.

Lack of Shelter, Security and Stability

  • Attendance Problems

    Because homeless students are transient, many face barriers when it comes to finding reliable transportation, completing homework assignments, and finishing a full grade at one school. The National Network 4 Youth found that 20 percent of homeless students repeat at least one grade while in school.

  • Sleep Deprivation

    Without access to a permanent bed of their own, many homeless students sleep wherever they can find shelter – including storage units, vehicles, shared motel rooms with other people, or even on the street. Because they seldom get a restful night's sleep, many of these students struggle to stay focused while at school.

  • High Stress

    Aside from the normal stressors related to growing up, homeless K-12 students also must face much larger questions: When will I get my next meal? Will I be taken away from my parents? At the postsecondary level, homeless college students are often struggling to balance a full-time job while in school and are constantly concerned about being able to pay for housing, utilities, and possibly even costs related to supporting other family members.

Lack of Emotional Support and Belonging

  • Behavioral Issues

    It's no surprise that most homeless students come from unstable families. While the lack of support from parents or siblings is stressful enough, many of these learners are also at a high risk of being exposed to traumatic events, such as domestic abuse, alcoholism, drug use, or protecting one parent from another. Data from the Institute for Children and Poverty found up to 12 percent of homeless students miss 30 days of classes due to issues at home.

  • Substance Abuse

    Approximately 80 percent of homeless youth either actively or in the past have abused substances as a way to deal with all the trauma of their upbringing.

  • Shame

    Regardless of their current situation, many homeless youths feel intense shame and responsibly for being homeless. In the midst of trying to balance a rigorous academic schedule, these students often feel ashamed to let friends or teachers know about their past or current homeless status.

Lack of Nutrition and Hygiene

  • Poor Health

    Homeless students and their families rarely have quality access to healthcare, and therefore have likely neglected many preventative measures to better their health. Many of these students have never visited a pediatrician or dentist, and are too afraid to tell a physician about their living situation.

  • Poor Diet

    It's important for children and youth to eat healthy, balanced diets that create healthy immune systems, yet for many homeless students, that scenario is not a possibility. Many of these students have grown up under-nourished, due both to lack of access to food generally and lack of access to healthy food specifically.

  • Poor Hygiene

    When students are living out of cars or storage units, their access to running water is severely limited. This lack of access to facilities that allow them to maintain hygienic practices only adds to the sense of shame and embarrassment that uproots their emotional health.

Understanding Homelessness and Legislation for Students

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act was passed into federal law during Ronald Reagan's presidency, with 2017 marking the 20th anniversary of this important legislation existing. As the most significant piece of federal law focused on homelessness within the United States, McKinney-Vento works to ensure that academic barriers to success are resolved as efficiently and effectively as possible. It also works to provide support mechanisms to ensure that, at least while at school, students have access to basic care such as education, food, and shelter.

Who is considered homeless?

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act defines homeless children and youth as any individual who does not have access to a permanent and satisfactory dwelling to return home to at night. Student populations included in this definition are those who are sharing transitory housing (e.g. motel, motor home, trailer) with other people who are also experiencing loss of housing; those whose primary dwelling was not created for residence and functions in a different capacity during daytime hours; those who are living in any type of vehicle, public structure, or abandoned space; and those who are considered migrants.

What ages does the McKinney-Vento Act cover?

The McKinney-Vento Act covers homeless children and youth who are aged 21 or younger.

What rights do homeless students have under law?

Under this law, homeless students have numerous rights when it comes to access to education and services, including:

  • The right to be immediately enrolled in school and to participate fully in any school activities for which they are eligible – even if the child can't provide records that are typically required.

  • The right to attend a school in their neighborhood or district where they previously had permanent housing, regardless of their current location.

  • The right to receive transportation to and from school.

  • The right to take advantage of educational programs and services, including Title I provisions, free meals, ESL programs, special education, gifted and talented, pre-school, vocational training, and pre-/post-school childcare.

  • The right to receive specialized protections for homeless youth, including the ability to enroll in a school without documentation of guardianship.

  • The right to debate a decision about enrollment if they feel it is unfair or disadvantageous.

  • The right to request that a homeless educational liaison be appointed to ensure they have proper access and representation.

What are schools legally required to do for homeless students?

The rules below apply specifically to public schools, and private schools are not covered under the McKinney-Vento Act. Things that schools are required to do include:

  • Not discriminate against any student, regardless of race, color, national origin, age, sex, or disability.

  • Eliminate any identified barriers that prevent students from fully participating in school, including any “outstanding fees or fines”- particularly those associated with extracurricular activities.

  • Enroll students at any time they come to the school, including mid-semester.

  • Not discipline or expel a student for issue related to their homelessness (e.g. missing class).

  • Provide free school meals, regardless of whether they provide income documentation.

  • Provide any medical or dental services that can be accessed at the school.

  • Ensure all students have access to safe and confidential services – especially when domestic abuse is a concern in their home.

Are college students covered by this law?

Although the McKinney-Vento Act covers homeless students aged 21 and younger, the rules in place are typically focused on ensuring unaccompanied homeless youth are supported while trying to graduate from high school. That being said, the law does require schools and colleges to provide a range of services meant to help students who aspire to postsecondary education fulfill those goals. Some of these include:

  • Providing homeless students with access to counselors who can offer advice, counseling, and mentorship while also ensuring learners are better prepared for college.

  • Receiving fee waivers for college standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT.

  • Writing letters to prospective colleges explaining the student's situation and validating any student who marks themselves as homeless.

  • Students are able to request fee waivers from colleges, even if they don't have proper documentation.

What steps are needed to be eligible for McKinney-Vento services?

The process for becoming eligible for services provided under the McKinney-Vento Act is typically straight-forward and hinges on proving the student fits within the definition of “homeless” as outlined by the law. Given that homeless student's lives are rarely straight-forward, however, this process requires a knowledgeable and patient local homeless education liaison who is able to read the definition carefully and make case-by-case decisions about each child.

Additional Laws for Homeless Students

Aside from McKinney-Vento, numerous other laws are on the books to help benefit homeless students trying to complete K-12 and college educations.

Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)

Commonly known as the No Child Left Behind program, Title I funding exists to ensure low-income students can access programs and support systems designed to enhance their academic achievements. Even if a school attended by a homeless student doesn't typically receive Title I funding, provisions are in place to providing funding to offer services to that student. Examples of support mechanisms include tutoring programs, after-school programs, and individualized support.

Head Start Act

Since 2007, Head Start has worked to prepare students in low-income areas for grade school by providing pre-school programs. While not specifically aimed at homeless learners, they typically meet all the requirements for receiving the service. At present day, however, the issue is that demand far outweighs supply. Many students are placed on waiting lists at their neighborhood school, but homeless learners who are constantly moving may struggle to take up their spot when the time comes.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

IDEA was enacted to ensure learners with disabilities – including those who are homeless – are able to receive specialized educational services that address individual learning disabilities. Because homeless students have a higher risk of exhibiting learning or developmental delays, laws like IDEA ensure they have access to all the same services, regardless of their home situation.

Child Nutrition Act

CNA exists to ensure students from low-income families have access to free and/or reduced meals at school that are healthy and filling. While most parents must complete an application and show proof of income to qualify, parents of homeless students are permitted to bypass this step so their children are immediately eligible.

Identifying and Helping Homeless Students in the Classroom

Because homeless students often are embarrassed about their situations, it may not be immediately clear whether they lack permanent housing. Teachers who understand the warning signs are equipped to look for the signs, while those who understand the services better are far more prepared to ensure every student – regardless of their situation – has access to tailored services and programs to help them thrive. It's also important to remember that the warning signs listed below are often hallmarks of homelessness, yet every student is different and may exhibit different warning signs.

Warning Signs

  • Academic difficulties Students often come to school unprepared (e.g. no homework to turn in), and/or they struggle to focus while in class. This may include acting out in front of other students, difficulty staying awake through lessons, inability to properly absorb lessons, or being otherwise scattered and disconnected from learning.
  • Documentation challenges Documents typically required to enroll a child in school include proof of guardianship, proof of residency, immunization records, records from previous schools, and teacher recommendations. For many homeless students, however, lots of these documents are either hard to come by or simply don't exist.
  • Social and behavioral issues For many homeless students, their lives at home are unstable at best, while others have traumatic or anxiety-inducing experiences on a daily basis. Some of the ways these incidents manifest themselves behaviorally include difficulty trusting people, shyness, low self-esteem, fears about abandonment, dependency, and a fear of leaving school at the end of the day.
  • Poor health and nutrition Because homeless students often lack access to consistent, healthy meals, they may arrive at school having not eaten since receiving a meal at school the previous day. This can lead to students being disconnected in classroom settings, but also problems such as being frequently sick or malnourished.
  • Poor hygiene and wardrobe issues Students who lack access to running water or washing machines may show signs of homelessness by wearing the same clothes continually without them being cleaned. They may also exhibit oily skin or hair, or strong body odors, since they aren't able to bathe regularly.
  • Lack of continuity in school Homeless students tend to move around a lot because they have no fixed and permanent home. Students from this population are far more likely to miss large amounts of school days and repeat grades because they simply don't have the stability in place to be in attendance daily. It can also be difficult to ascertain their prior learning if records from previous schools attended aren't available.
  • Lack of support Unlike other students whose parents pack their lunches, bring them to school, and help with homework, homeless students often must motivate themselves to complete assignments, wake up on time for school, find food (if available), and figure out how to get to school each day. Teachers may never meet the parents of these students, as they don't have independent transportation to drop-off and pick-up their children or to attend parent-teacher conferences.
  • Unexplained absences Students who frequently discuss visiting relatives or going out of town for other inexplicable reasons, yet lack access to transportation, are often staying in short-term housing (or actively looking for shelter), making it difficult for them to come to school each day.
  • Avoidance of personal details Students typically aren't shy when it comes to talking about their parents or siblings, but homeless students often feel shame about their circumstances and may be reticent to share little or any details about their home life. This can also manifest in them being aloof around other students or not having many friends at school.
  • Inability to complete projects While most homework assignments are typically done on worksheets or notebook paper, special projects requiring students to have specific supplies (such as construction paper, glue, etc.) may present problems as students have no access to these materials and no money to purchase them. Students who regularly fail to turn in these types of assignments may have no way to get ahold of even basic school supplies.

What to Do Once Homeless Status is Confirmed

Once an educator confirms that a student is homeless, there are steps they should follow to ensure the student is getting support. Because of laws like McKinney-Vento, public schools are required to provide a range of supports, but often students need the help of teachers and guidance counselors to properly access these services. Some of the steps teachers can take to best care for their students include:

  • Ensure basic needs are met

    Before addressing academic concerns, teachers should ensure that any homeless student has stable access to things like food, clothes, hygiene products, transportation, shelter, and medical care. They should also work with school administrators to ensure that, if a student moves or their circumstances change, updated services are provided.

  • Complete an educational assessment

    Even if a student is meant to be starting fourth grade, they may not be academically prepared. At the start of the school year, teachers should assess the child's skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic to ascertain their ability – especially if previous school records are unavailable.

  • Create a check-in for new students

    Whether that means eating lunch in the homeroom or taking a few moments at the end of the day, teachers should try to chat with new students for a few moments to find out how they are settling in and if they feel comfortable. For shy students, it may be helpful to assign them a task or encourage them to take part in a student activity.

  • Create a buddy system

    Especially during the first few weeks of attending a new school, having a buddy with whom to eat lunch, walk to class, or get to know the premises can help students settle in and feel more comfortable in their new environment.

  • Maintain structure

    Homeless students often have little to no structure in their lives outside school, so creating a routine with clear rules can help them adjust to their surroundings and calm some of their fears.

  • Make time for assignments at school

    If students are struggling to complete homework, consider building time into daily lesson plans where assignments can be done at school (using on-site school supplies).

  • Monitor grades

    If a teacher suspects that tutoring would help a homeless student better engage with coursework, they should proactively work to ensure that the learner has access to these services – either at the school or a community center nearby. This is also true of counseling services.

What K-12 Schools are Doing to Help

When it comes to helping homeless students and their families, even the most basic support services can have tremendously positive effects on both their academic performance and their future. There are many programs popping up in schools and local communities to help this population find access to support systems and services that help them regain their dignity and achieve their academic goals.

After school programs

Programs that allow children to remain at school after the learning day has ended provide many benefits to students, including access to positive mentoring relationships, better academic performance, and opportunities for children who have fallen behind to catch up to the rest of the class. The Homeless Children's Education Fund offers the Building Blocks Afterschool Program, while Coalition for the Homeless provides Bound for Success.

Mentoring and tutoring services

Homeless students often lack the adult guidance and support of other students, but mentoring and tutoring programs can change all of that. These vital programs provide adults who encourage students in their learning, offer safe and confidential listening, and help learners develop practical coping mechanisms and skills to see their way through school. Examples include Schools on Wheels, an academic tutoring service for homeless children in Southern California, and Eyes Wide Open Mentoring, a one-to-one mentoring program that gives homeless students the tools needed to rise above their circumstances.

Temporary housing for homeless families

The instability caused by lack of access to safe, permanent housing cannot be understated. When children have a home, they know they can return to at the end of each school day, they are able to sleep better, maintain proper hygiene, cook meals, and are much more likely to be able to stay enrolled at the same school. A number of local and national programs provide temporary housing for homeless families, including The Salvation Army (which provides shelter to nearly 30,000 homeless individuals each day), and GRACE, a program that allows families to live in temporary housing for up to two years while they find their footing.

Free or discounted meal programs

When students don't have access to proper nutrition, their ability to learn suffers. Science has shown that nutrition not only increases brain function, it also can help produce better behavior and support mental concentration, perception, and reasoning skills. The National School Lunch Program has been around since 1946 and provides free or heavily subsidizes lunches and snacks for children who would benefit from a federally-assisted meal program – including homeless students.

24/7 Drop-In Centers

According to the Children and Youth Services Review, 24/7 drop-in centers help foster caring and supportive relationships between homeless youth and center staff, offers a place that feels like a family home where they can relax and/or work on school, and provides a socially acceptable environment where they can be themselves without worrying what others think of them. The Lighthouse Mission is one such example and offers sleeping space for 120 people alongside places to hang out, bathe, focus on studying, play games, or engage in other activities. Another example is Dallas's After8toEducate, a program for unsheltered high school students where they can take advantage of shelter, academic and emotional support, tutoring, job training, counseling, food, clothing, laundry, and bathing facilities.

On-site showers

It may sound simple, but the basic act of taking a shower to feel clean and refreshed can have many positive impacts on a student's everyday life. By being able to access a shower, students don't worry what others think of their appearance, don't have to worry about body odor, and can participate in daily grooming that produces better self-confidence. Many homeless drop-in centers offer bathing facilities. Examples include Beautiful Together, which has private showers, hygiene supplies, towels, and even bus passes, and Janus Youth, which offers showers, washers and dryers, telephones, and internet connections.

Apparel donations

Being able to wear clean, gently used clothes helps students feel self-worth while also not worrying that other students think their clothes are shabby. They also help students who are going on job interviews or college tours to feel presentable. Organizations working to clothe homeless students include Avenues for Homeless Youth and YouthLink.

Higher Education for Homeless Students

Attending college may feel completely out of reach to students who are struggling to complete high school without a permanent roof over their heads, but many aren't aware of the resources and support programs available to help them get into college, find housing, have access to food, and secure transportation.

Programs for College-Bound Homeless Students

Programs are available to help high school students prepare for postsecondary educations and get ahead once they reach college. While some programs are organized via the federal government, others are managed by individual states or nonprofits.

Middle College High Schools

Since their creation in the 1970's, middle colleges have worked to provide an expedited path to high school diplomas for students who would benefit from a less stringent learning environment. By combining a core set of high school classes alongside several community college courses, students are able to meet the requirements of a diploma while also building credit toward a future degree. Learners must be at least 16-years-old to participate. Examples include Gary Middle College in Indiana and the Metro Nashville Early College High School.

Running Start

This program, which is currently only available in Washington and Hawaii, operates in a similar fashion as other dual enrollment programs throughout the country. By providing up to two years of free tuition at any of the state's community colleges – and select four-year institutions – degree seekers enrolled in Running Start are able to work towards a degree without having the financial stress associated with paying for credits. Students must be in 11th or 12th grade to enroll, and they're responsible for additional costs such as books, fees, and transportation.

Upward Bound

Operating as a federally funded program, Upward Bound works to ensure that students who are typically at a disadvantage for going to college have the training and access needed to succeed. The program mainly works with students who are classified as low-income, the first in their family to attend college, or living in rural areas. By enrolling in intensive programs during the summer months, high schoolers can take advantage of college prep classes in areas of math, sciences, composition, foreign languages, and literature. A special emphasis is placed on ensuring students have proper support mechanisms, including tutoring, advising, access to work-study opportunities, and cultural enrichment.


Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) is another federally funded program that dispenses funds to state governments for the education of low-income learners. GEAR UP is a cohort-based program whereby students, beginning with seventh grade and moving through senior year, participate in a range of programs designed to raise the number of learners who attend – and graduate from – college.

Work experience programs

In addition to all the knowledge that homeless students can pick up in high school, there are many skills that are best taught outside the classroom. Work experience programs are great for rounding out a student's knowledge base, ensuring they understand the importance of soft skills such as time management, self-discipline, and professionalism. The California Department of Education is home to Work Experience Education (WEE), while the Coalition for the Homeless maintains the First Step Job Experience program.

On- and Off-Campus Support for Homeless College Students

Having continued support while attending college can increase homeless students' chances of succeeding in school. Colleges and communities throughout the U.S. are stepping up to serve this population in meaningful ways that encourage academic, emotional and physical balance.

On-Campus Programs and Initiatives for Homeless College Students

Campus transition, engagement and academic support programs

Programs like Florida State University's Unconquered Scholars and the University of Utah's Student Homelessness Task Force exist to ensure students receive support and opportunities to participate in campus life throughout the lifespan of their college career. Aside from letting homeless students know that they are known and cared for, these programs provide a range of helpful services. Examples include one-to-one advising, skills workshops, financial aid assistance and workshops, coaching on adjusting to college life, and counseling services.

Campus food pantries

Worrying about food is the last thing a college student should be doing when trying to get good grades and balance a job/internship, but sadly it's the reality for far too many degree seekers. Many food pantries have opened on college campuses in the last few years, including those at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, The University of Arizona, and George Mason University. Some of the services provided include access to healthy and fresh foods, a range of hygienic products, weekly pick-ups, and specialized food for those with dietary restrictions.

Case management

Programs like Kennesaw State University's CARE Management and Florida Atlantic University's Case Management/Student Advocacy work to ensure students are connected with individual case managers who can direct them to services that address their specific needs. In addition to sharing resources such as food pantries, transportation services, and medical care, these programs also help to address any grading concerns or academic issues students encounter while working towards their degrees.

On-campus housing

According to data released by the U.S. Department of Education, approximately 32,000 students identified themselves as “unaccompanied homeless youth” when filling out their FAFSA forms. Unfortunately, many college students are living in cars or other impermanent structures, making it difficult for them to focus on schoolwork. A number of college programs now exist to help students who find themselves in similar situations. Kennesaw State University's CARE Center provides 365-day housing and emergency shelter alongside access to basic hygienic products, gently used clothing, and food. Another example, Sacramento State, recently launched the Student Emergency Housing Program that provides 30 days of food and shelter to students in immediate need.

Off-Campus Programs for Homeless Students

Off-campus housing for students

If colleges don't have adequate housing for homeless students, or it is too expensive for them, they still have many options to choose from. Programs like Students for Students (S4S) in Los Angeles and Y2Y Harvard in Boston offer housing for students, by students. Aside from providing a consistent roof over their heads, formerly homeless

College meal assistance

Although many colleges are now working to provide food pantries and other campus-based meal assistance, sometimes students need a bit more help to survive. Programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provide students with governmental assistance to keep food in the cupboard, but it does require them to work at least 20 hours per week. Swipe Out Hunger is an innovative program where college students donate extra meal points at the end of each semester, which are then given to homeless students to use on campus. Aside from providing food, this program makes it possible for homeless students to eat at campus-based dining halls and interact with other students.

Resource connection services

Students have enough on their minds with schoolwork to worry about finding individual services and resources. Rather than students having to search for things like housing, food, transportation, or suitable technology, organizations like Single Stop USA offer an overarching network of common services, thereby providing a one-stop-shop for basic help. The California Homeless Youth Project is another similar program, providing a comprehensive set of resources for all the most common needs of homeless college students.

In addition to all the helpful information and resources found on this page, homeless students can also learn about numerous college resources designed to support low income students as they work towards a degree. Check out the guide below to learn more.

Get Involved: How You Can Help Homeless Students

Even if you aren't on the frontlines of serving homeless K-12 or college students as an education professional, there are still many important ways to be involved in supporting these young learners. Individuals who have the means to support the fight against youth homelessness in monetary ways can find many worthy organizations accepting donations, while those who wish to donate their time can do so at one of the countless innovative organizations that actively seek volunteers.



  • A Child's Place Individuals in Charlotte, North Carolina who are looking for actionable ways to support homeless students need look no further than A Child's Place. This nonprofit offers volunteer roles ranging from lunch buddies (volunteers visit school once per week to spend time with a child) to tutors and classroom assistants.
  • Homemade Hope Dallas's Homemade Hope is not only working to eradicate homelessness in the city, it's also ensuring that homeless students have access to strong, empathetic adults who support them. Volunteer roles include tutor, after-school cooking, field-trip chaperone, and many other positions.
  • Horizons for Homeless Children With a focus on engaging homeless children in play, volunteers are needed at this nonprofit to volunteer with children living in shelters and act as Playspace Activity Leaders (PALs).
  • Housing Families This short-term shelter for homeless families is always looking for volunteers who can help engage students during their time at the center. Current volunteer opportunities include providing childcare, driving the children's van, and acting as an after-school tutor.
  • Monarch Started in San Diego as a small education program, today Monarch operates as a comprehensive K-12 school for some of the 23,000 homeless students living in the county. Volunteers are needed to provide tutoring, mentorship, after-school care, and many other services.
  • New York Cares Individuals living in the Big Apple can volunteer to work with children living in homeless shelters or other unfixed housing, providing a range of educational support services based on individual needs.
  • Schools on Wheels This national organization offers remote tutoring services to homeless youth powered almost entirely by volunteers. Current roles include tutor, peer tutor (for 16 to 18-year-olds), tutor coordinator, group tutor, or online tutor.
  • Student Homelessness Initiative Partnership Based in Frederick County, Maryland, SHIP works to provide a range of services to homeless youth and is always looking for volunteers. Roles may include creating hygiene sets, coordinating a range of extracurricular activities, teaching at art camp, coaching sports, or doing a shift in the emergency shelter.
  • Volunteers of America This national organization works in many different parts of the country to solve youth homelessness. One of the more unique programs they have – and need volunteers for - is Brightening Birthdays. If you want to volunteer to help arrange a birthday party for a homeless child, VOA has an opportunity for you.
  • Youth on their Own Based in Arizona, this group works to educate homeless teens and is in constant need of volunteers who can work directly with homeless youth to affect their lives in positive ways.

Derek Vasconi: Overcoming Homelessness and Completing an Education

When he was 17-years-old, Derek Vasconi was forced to leave his mother's house and became homeless. Despite months of living in parks, he was able to complete a college degree at Penn State in human development and psychology. He is also an avid writer, having published KAI, an award-winning Japanese horror novel.

How did you come to be homeless and what did that season look like for you?

I lived in a small town called Sharon, which is about an hour north of Pittsburgh. I was kicked out of my house when I was 17 and didn't have anywhere to go. I ended up sleeping on a bench in the local park for several months, unsure if I was ever going to make it to college. I had just graduated from high school right at the time I ended up being homeless, after having been kicked out of the home. It was very difficult, very depressing, and very wet, since it rained quite a bit during the time I was living there. I never knew if I was going to wake up to what little I owned stolen or if I would be hurt.

What were some of your biggest challenges during this time?

The biggest challenge was finding food to eat. I had to resort almost daily to eating the bread that people would feed the ducks in the pond. I was too proud to ask for money to eat, but thankfully, I was gregarious back then, so I made some friends out of the people who would visit the park regularly, and they would sometimes take me to Burger King or McDonalds for a nice meal. One time somebody took me to a grocery store and bought me a ton of food and drinks. The other challenge I can remember vividly is just trying not to cry every day, wondering how I could've ended up in the situation I found myself in at that time. I had graduated sixth in my class, was a member of the National Honor Society and Who's Who Among American High School Students, and graduated with a 4.75 GPA. And I was homeless and without any practical life skills. I could do trigonometry easily, but I didn't know how to fill out a job application properly. It was that disparity that drove me to the edge of madness most nights in the park.

When did circumstances change for you?

My cousin had heard from somebody in my family what was going on with me. I didn't own a phone or anything, so it wasn't like I could call him. I didn't even think to call him, since we hadn't talked in a long time. Years, in fact. Then one morning, I woke from underneath my blanket of newspapers, which I remember were really wet because it had been raining pretty hard the night before, and there he was. He took me in, and his mother helped pay for me to get to college, and also to make sure I had enough money and food to give it a good run for at least my first semester at college. I had thought that I would have to give up my dream of going to college, but they made sure that didn't happen. To this day, I can't thank them enough for their kindness. They saved me.

While pursuing your education, what resources, if any did you utilize?

After living with [my aunt and cousin] for a few months, I got into Penn State and majored in Human Development and Counseling. I received several scholarships, including a very large scholarship to attend Gannon University, my first college. When I later returned to college, I attended Penn State. They, too, offered me a couple different [financial] awards. It didn't cover my whole tuition, but it all certainly helped me. I found that utilizing support services were mostly inadequate because it was never obvious to me what I could actually apply for. There wasn't enough awareness on my part to even think of getting help from somebody at that time, as far as my schools and what they were offering.

What have you learned from this experience?

Everything taught me to rely only on myself and to do what I had to do in order to survive. I don't regret anything that I did, nor do I even care anymore about what had happened to me, as in I don't have any enduring resentment towards my mother or those in my life who abandoned me. I am completely and solely focused on what is ahead of me in my life.

Seeking Help: Additional Resources for Homeless Students

Looking to find out about a few more resources that actively support and encourage homeless students? The websites below connect to national resources that can ensure students stay fed and sheltered.

College and University Food Bank Alliance
Homeless students looking to find out if their college (or one that is nearby) operates a food bank can use CUFBA's database to make quick work of their search.

Feeding America
Homeless students looking to find a food bank in their community can use Feeding America's national database to see what is closest to them.

Homeless Shelter Directory
This website currently maintains a database of more than 12,000 emergency food programs in America, ranging from shelters and food pantries to soup kitchens and food banks.

HUD Exchange
The Department of Housing and Urban Develop maintains a comprehensive range of resources designed specifically to serve homeless youth, including several paths to finding safe and permanent housing.

National Alliance to End Homelessness
NAEH provides an exhaustive section of its website devoted to addressing the health concerns and needs of homeless students in America, including information on how they can get help.
This national website is a great resource for high school and college students who are trying to find cheap, short-term housing where they can get on their feet without breaking the bank.

National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth Individuals who are experiencing homelessness while in school can use this resource to learn about their rights and find helpful resources (such as test fee waivers) to propel them forward.

National Health Care for the Homeless Council
Homeless students who need to visit a doctor or have a procedure done can contact this agency to learn about their options and receive quality care referrals.

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