National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth and Families

Education Help for Runaway and Homeless Youth

Two high school students conducting an experiment in chemistry class

According to Missed Opportunities: National Estimates, a 2017 report from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, a minimum of 700,000 young people ages 13 to 17 experienced homelessness in the previous 12 months. That translates to 1 in 30 young people in the high school age range. The National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE), meanwhile, found that the number of students experiencing some form of homelessness rose 7 percent from 2014 to 2017.

These figures are particularly worrisome considering the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness’s contention that “children and youth experiencing homelessness and housing instability are less likely to be academically successful, and less likely to graduate from high school and make it to and through college.” Education can provide stability and employment prospects for runaway, homeless, and at-risk youth. Likewise, school attendance can put these young people in contact with supportive peers and teachers who can serve as a network of support. But education can fall by the wayside as young people contend with the pressures of housing insecurity, including frequent moves, poverty, and the need to provide financially for themselves or their families.

McKinney-Vento: A Promise for Equal Education

For more than 30 years, one piece of federal legislation has ensured that runaway and homeless youth receive the same educational opportunities as their peers with stable housing.

The McKinney Homeless Assistance Act was first authorized in 1987. Renamed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act in 2000, it was most recently reauthorized as part of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015. There have also been changes to the Act over the years. For example, in 2015, ESSA provided professional development and technical assistance at the state and local levels and emphasized collaboration and coordination with other service providers. These amendments went into effect on October 1, 2016.

Specifically, the McKinney-Vento Act:

  • Defines homeless youth as individuals without a fixed, regular, adequate nighttime residence. This includes youth living in shelters, cars, parks, public spaces or abandoned buildings.
  • Establishes the right of homeless youth to continue in the school they attended before they became homeless and receive transportation to that school.
  • Prohibits school districts from segregating students experiencing homelessness into shelter classrooms, separate schools, or separate programs within a school.
  • Requires all school districts to have a liaison for homeless youth to serve as advocates and to connect these youth and their families to social services.
  • Requires every state to have a Coordinator for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth responsible for ensuring compliance with the Act in the state’s public schools.

Use NCHE’s interactive map to find your State Coordinator for homeless education, who can provide you with more detailed contact info on district-level McKinney-Vento liaisons. NCHE’s Understanding the Role of McKinney-Vento Homeless Liaisons guide explains the scope and purpose of liaisons’ work. The NCHE website houses a regularly updated series of NCHE issue briefs that discuss an array of issues related to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act and its implementation.

Additional Tools

There are many other ways to help homeless students stay in school and meet their educational needs: