Schools must help homeless students. Here’s what you should know

This story was produced as part of a collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity, The Seattle Times, Street Sense Media and WAMU/DCist.

When is a student considered homeless?

The definition of homelessness among K-12 students is laid out in the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a federal law that details the help public schools must give unstably housed children. That includes students living in the following conditions:

  • motels, hotels or campgrounds when they have no other options.
  • emergency or transitional shelters.
  • cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings.
  • the homes of friends or extended relatives, due to need rather than choice.

More than 75% of children identified as homeless under the McKinney-Vento law are in that final category, often known as “doubled-up,” the informal wording used to describe situations when children must live with friends or relatives beyond their immediate family because of circumstances such as economic hardship, an eviction or a natural disaster.

During the 2019-20 school year, close to 1.3 million children in the nation’s public schools were identified as homeless. But that figure may vastly underestimate the actual number. A Center for Public Integrity analysis found evidence that thousands of school districts are undercounting.

Experts who spoke with Public Integrity said that confusion surrounding the McKinney-Vento law and who qualifies as “doubled-up” can leave many students unidentified and not receiving the support they need in school.

Schools are required to use housing questionnaires or surveys to find these students, but some put much more effort into it than others. 

Complicating matters: Parents, guardians and older students navigating the system themselves may not know about the federal law or even consider themselves homeless. Some may also fear that acknowledging homelessness could bring unwanted attention from child-welfare agencies.

What rights do homeless children have?

Homelessness can affect a child’s ability to learn and perform well in school. Nationwide, homeless students graduate at lower rates than average. They’re also more likely to be chronically absent from school and have lower standardized test scores.

That’s why schools are required to provide extra support.

Under federal law, school districts and charter schools are required to designate liaisons to support homeless children.

State and local McKinney-Vento contacts maintained by the National Center for Homeless Education are available at

The liaison coordinates services to help provide a stable learning environment. When students are identified as homeless, schools must:

  • waive enrollment requirements, such as immunization forms, that could keep kids out of the classroom.
  • refer families to health care and housing services.
  • provide transportation to and from school so children can remain in their “school of origin,” the school they attended before they became homeless, even if they’re now outside the attendance boundaries.

Allowing a student to continue classes at their school of origin keeps them in a stable situation with familiar peers and adults to counter the often harmful effects of housing instability.

What happens when schools deny or dispute a child’s rights?

Children experiencing homelessness should have equal access to educational opportunities, including public preschool education. Federal law mandates that schools remove any barriers that would prevent that from happening. However, districts and families aren’t always in agreement on what those barriers are.

In some instances, parents have filed lawsuits after districts denied services. Most cases that Public Integrity reviewed focus on whether students are eligible for transportation to attend their school of origin.

If a family files a complaint with their school district, homeless liaisons are supposed to step in to ensure that the rights of students are protected. In cases where an agreement cannot be reached, either party may request that the state’s homeless-children education coordinator decide who is right.

But sometimes outside intervention is needed and attorneys are called in.

While disputes are ongoing, students must be immediately enrolled in the school in which they’re seeking enrollment, pending the resolution of a case or complaint.

So, children should attend school until a dispute is resolved — even if the district thinks families are misinterpreting the law.

Families with questions about their eligibility for services under the McKinney-Vento law can contact local legal aid offices. Students and families can also review information on their rights by visiting homeless advocacy organizations’ websites, such as the National Homelessness Law Center and SchoolHouse Connection.

Corey Mitchell is a reporter with the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates inequality.

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