Press Release

Hidden Epidemic of Student Homelessness Threatens Futures of More Than 1 Million Young People Every Year

Nationwide survey of homeless students and school liaisons highlights challenges and opportunities, just as ESSA requires districts and states – for the first time – to report high school graduation rates for homeless students

WASHINGTON, D.C.– More than 1.3 million public school students were identified as homeless in 2012- 2013, a number that has been rising since 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Education. To learn more about their lives and how best to help them, researchers interviewed and surveyed hundreds of current and formerly homeless students and the federally-mandated state coordinators and school liaisons assigned to work with them. 

The result – a new report, Hidden in Plain Sight: Homeless Students in America’s Public Schools, written by Civic Enterprises with Hart Research Associates and released today by the GradNation campaign  – provides insight into how educators, policymakers and community organizations can help more students cope with homelessness, graduate from high school and get on a path to adult success. 

The report challenges the nation to embrace the goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate for all students, including those experiencing homelessness, and to make the provision of safe housing for homeless students a priority.

Key survey findings provide a glimpse into the challenges homeless students face.

  • 78% of young people surveyed say homelessness was something they experienced more than once.
  • 61% say they were never connected with any outside organization for support while homeless; 87% of those who were connected found the help valuable.
  • 67% (approx. two-thirds) say they were uncomfortable talking with people at their school about their housing situation and related challenges.
  • 62% say proof of residency requirements and 56% say lack of cooperation between their new and old schools posed a major challenge for them while changing schools.
  • 54% say concrete supports (housing, food, transportation) and emotional supports are equally important.
  • 50% say they slept in a car, park, abandoned building, bus station or other public place.
  • As a subgroup, homeless students are one of the lowest graduating student populations in the nation -- 42% say they dropped out of school at least once.

With student homelessness on the rise, liaisons say resources haven’t kept up.

  • 89% say they spend just half of their time or less on their responsibilities as liaisons.
  • They cite key challenges, including lack of funding (78%), lack of time, staff and resources (57%), lack of community awareness (36%), and inability to find safe spaces for homeless students before and after school (30%).
  • Nearly 90 percent of liaisons report that they work with unaccompanied youth (not in the custody of a parent or guardian), and fully half of liaisons report that unaccompanied youth present a major challenge when it comes to connecting them to the services and supports they need.

“Homelessness is a threat to everything students might want to achieve in their lives, but it doesn’t have to be a barrier to success for millions of students,” said John M. Bridgeland, president and CEO of Civic Enterprises and a co-author of the report. “Schools, community organizations and caring adults can create a web of support and lifelines to action that will help students experiencing homelessness cope and thrive.

“For the long term,” Bridgeland continued, “we should aspire to make the provision of safe, affordable housing as common as school breakfast and lunch.”

ESSA & McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. With the passing of the Every Student Succeeds Act, for the first time ever all states and school districts will be required to report high school graduation rates for homeless students, beginning with the 2016-17 school year.

Currently only five states report high school graduation rates for homeless students - Colorado, Kansas, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming. In all five states, graduation rates for homeless students lag well behind rates for all students, even other low-income students.

“Given all the challenges they face, homeless students graduate from high school at significantly lower rates than their peers,” said Erin S. Ingram, policy advisor at Civic Enterprises and a co-author of the report. “Achieving their high school diploma is a critical step toward breaking the cycle of poverty and homelessness for these students, and we must ensure they have the right supports to meet that goal.”

Effective October 1, 2016, the new ESSA amendments will strengthen the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a federal law that provides key educational protections and funding to help states and school districts identify and support homeless children and youth.

Students and school liaisons call for changes. The majority of students surveyed said they needed:

  • Concrete supports, including housing, food, clothing, before and after school programs, school supplies, transportation, academic support, help with college preparation.
  • Caring adults, someone to talk to or check in with for emotional support.
  • Opportunities to connect with other students and maintain friendships.

The majority of school liaisons surveyed called for more efforts to:

  • Raise public awareness of the problem.
  • Train all school staff to help identify and support homeless students (think not only teachers and counselors, but bus drivers and cafeteria workers).

Half of the homeless students who participated in this study said they had to change schools while homeless, many of them multiple times. Both liaisons and students spoke about the need to ease paperwork challenges that make re-enrollment difficult.

Policy recommendations. Among the report’s key recommendations: 1) Work to ensure that the ESSA amendments on identifying and serving homeless students in the McKinney-Vento Act and Title I part A are fully implemented in states, schools and districts. 2) Focus on outreach efforts to inform homeless students and families of their rights and raise community awareness. 3) Ensure that schools have the resources to actively engage with homeless students to help them stay in school. 4) Build connections between community organizations and schools and connect homeless students to those outside supports. 5) Set community and national goals around outcomes and graduation rates for homeless students and use data to drive progress. 6) Increase efforts to provide more affordable housing.

“Schools offer a significant opportunity for early intervention and outright prevention of student homelessness, but they must be properly supported,” said Tricia Raikes, co-founder of the Raikes Foundation, lead sponsor of the report. “We all have a role in this—from federal and state policymakers to leaders within our local schools, nonprofits and businesses. We must all join with students themselves to ensure that every young person has the safe, stable home needed to thrive.”

The Road to 90.  The GradNation campaign – led by America’s Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises, the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University and the Alliance for Excellent Education - set a bold goal to reach a 90 percent on-time high school graduation rate by the Class of 2020 – and that goal is in sight as the graduation rate hit a new record high of 82.3 percent. While students of color, low-income students and students with disabilities are key drivers of the national graduation rate, this report recognizes that other subgroups like homeless students will be important to meeting the campaign goal as well and may require different kinds of support.

“The goal of a 90 percent graduation rate won’t be reached if we leave certain subgroups behind,” said John Gomperts, president and CEO of America’s Promise Alliance. “We must do more to help homeless students cope with the adversity in their lives and continue their educations. In today’s economy, a high school diploma doesn’t guarantee success, but the lack of a diploma consigns a young person to almost certain failure.”

Authors and sponsors. Hidden in Plain Sight was written by a team of researchers at Civic Enterprises, a public policy and strategy firm, in association with Hart Research Associates. The study was released by the GradNation campaign, and funded by the Raikes Foundation, with additional funding support from Casey Family Programs, the Kresge Foundation, the Polk Brothers Foundation, and State Farm. 

Full report. To read the full report, access graphics, and other resources, visit:


Civic Enterprises is a public policy and strategy firm that helps corporations, nonprofits, foundations, universities and governments develop and spearhead innovative public policies to strengthen our communities and country. Created to enlist the private, public and nonprofit sectors to help address our nation’s toughest problems, Civic Enterprises fashions new initiatives and strategies that achieve measurable results in the fields of education, civic engagement, economic mobility, and many other domestic policy issues.

Hart Research Associates is one of the leading research firms in the United States and has been at the cutting edge of change in public opinion since its founding in 1971.

GradNation is a national campaign of individuals, organizations and communities focused on raising the national on-time high school graduation rate to 90 percent by the Class of 2020 and increasing college enrollment and completion.  The campaign is led by America’s Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises, Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University and the Alliance for Excellent Education.


Kathleen McMahon
Civic Enterprises
[email protected]
Daria L. Hall
America’s Promise Alliance
[email protected]