Hidden in Plain Sight



Hidden in Plain Sight


Release date:

June 13, 2016

This report examines the growing problem of student homelessness by interviewing and surveying currently and formerly homeless students and the state coordinators and local liaisons assigned to help them. 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 America’s Promise Alliance, a leader of the GradNation campaign.


Student homelessness is on the rise, with more than 1.3 million homeless students identified during the 2013-14 school year. This is a 7 percent increase from the previous year and more than double the number of homeless students in 2006-07. As high as these numbers seem, they are almost certainly undercounts.

Despite increasing numbers, these students – as well as the school liaisons and state coordinators who support them – report that student homelessness remains an invisible and extremely disruptive problem.

Students experiencing homelessness struggle to stay in school, to perform well, and to form meaningful connections with peers and adults. Ultimately, they are much more likely to fall off track and eventually drop out of school more often than their non-homeless peers.

This study:

  • provides an overview of existing research on homeless students,
  • sheds light on the challenges homeless students face and the supports they say they need to succeed,
  • reports on the challenges adults – local liaisons and state coordinators – face in trying to help homeless students, and
  • recommends changes in policy and practice at the school, community, state and national level to help homeless students get on a path to adult success.

This is a critical and timely topic. The recent reauthorization of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides many new and stronger provisions for homeless students (effective Oct. 1, 2016); requires states, district and schools for the first time to report graduation rates for homeless students (effective beginning with the 2016-17 school year); and affirms the urgency and importance of dealing with homelessness so that all children can succeed.

The Homestretch

Funded by CPB as part of public media’s “American Graduate” initiative, The Homestretch is a co-production of ITVS, Spargel Productions and Kartemquin Films, directed and produced by Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly. The Homestretch premiered on the PBS series Independent Lens on April 13, 2015.

Educational resources for The Homestretch may be found at http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/films/homestretch/
Key Facts About Student Homelessness

Whether students experience homelessness with their families or alone, for a week or a year, the experience is extremely damaging to their ability to stay in school and on track.

  • Students who experience homelessness are more likely than their non-homeless peers to be held back from grade to grade, have poor attendance or be chronically absent from school, fail courses, have more disciplinary issues, and drop out of school. These negative effects are amplified the longer a student remains homeless.
  • Students who experience homelessness are disproportionately minorities, and LGBTQ students are heavily overrepresented in the unaccompanied youth population.
  • The National Center on Family Homelessness reports that 75 percent of homeless elementary school students performed below grade level in reading and math. That number rose to 85 percent for high school students.
  • Students who are homeless struggle with learning disabilities and emotional difficulties at higher rates than their housed peers. Homeless students also face the challenge of being both over- and under-identified for special education.
  • Only five states – CO, KS, VA, WA, WY – now report high school graduation rates for homeless students. In all five, rates lag well behind grad rates for all students, even other low-income students. The gap between all students and homeless students in Washington State, for example, was 31 percentage points in 2014.


  • A Center for Promise study found that students experiencing homelessness were 87 percent more likely than stably housed students to drop out.

Students’ Experience - Disruption and Trauma

Young people who participated in this study overwhelmingly report that homelessness is taking or has taken a significant toll on their lives.

Disruption and Trauma

  • 82 percent say being homeless had a big impact on their life overall, 72 percent on their ability to feel safe and secure, 71 percent on their mental and emotional health, 62 percent on their physical health, and 69 percent on their self-confidence.


  • 60 percent say it was hard to stay in school while they were homeless; 42 percent say they dropped out of school at least once.
  • Half say they had to change schools during their homelessness, and many did so multiple times. 62 percent say the process was difficult to navigate, citing proof of residency requirements (62 percent), lack of cooperation between their old and new schools (56 percent), the need for medical records (50 percent), being behind on academic credits (48 percent), needing a parent or guardian to sign forms (48 percent) and transportation to and from school (48 percent).

Youth Homelessness: Covenant House

American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen is a public media initiative, made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) to address the dropout crisis and to build community capacity to meet the national priority of improving graduation rates. For more stories about young people overcoming the odds, visit americangraduate.org.

Students’ Experience - Invisibility

One of the most significant challenges to meeting the needs of homeless youth is simply identifying them.

Two thirds of the youth participating in this study (67 percent) say they were uncomfortable talking with people at their school about their housing situation and related challenges. Parents may not want to report their living situation for fear of losing custody of their children. And unaccompanied youth fear being placed into the foster care system.




The fluidity of youth homelessness further compounds the difficulties of identifying homeless students. Young people frequently drift between different living arrangements, or fall in and out of stable housing repeatedly.

  • 78 percent of youth surveyed for this report say homelessness was something they experienced more than once.
  • 94 percent say they stayed with other people rather than in one consistent place; 50 percent say they slept in a car, park, abandoned building, bus station or other public place.
  • 47 percent say they were homeless both with a parent and alone.

American Graduate: Focus on LA Homeless Youth

American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen is a public media initiative, made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) to address the dropout crisis and to build community capacity to meet the national priority of improving graduation rates. For more stories about young people overcoming the odds, visit americangraduate.org.

Students’ Experience - Supports and Services

Homeless students need a range of supports from their schools and from outside agencies –food, shelter, emotional support and mental health care, transportation, clothing, school supplies and academic assistance.

  • 54 percent of the students interviewed for this report say concrete supports (housing, food, transportation) and emotional supports are equally important.


  • When students were asked what they needed, they cited as very or fairly important having someone to talk to or check in with for emotional support (86 percent), connecting with peers or maintaining friendships (86 percent), participating in school activities including sports, music, art, and clubs (82 percent).
  • 58 percent say their schools did only a fair or poor job or should have done more to help them stay in and succeed in school. Just 25 percent say their schools did a good job helping them find them housing.
  • 61 percent say they were never connected with any outside organization while homeless; 87 percent of those who were connected found the help valuable.

“I wish I had been able to see a therapist. Being homeless, I had no money or insurance. I needed medication for my anxiety and depression, which only worsened with stress…. The stress of being in school and being homeless and not receiving any real help almost sent me to a psychiatric ward.” - Formerly Homeless Youth

Homeless Student Liaisons’ Experience

In line with national research, nearly all liaisons surveyed for this study report that the problem of youth homelessness has gotten worse in their area (47 percent) or stayed the same (46 percent) in recent years. Just 7 percent report that things have improved.

While student homelessness has intensified, liaisons say resources haven’t kept up.

  • Nearly 90 percent of liaisons report that they work with unaccompanied youth, 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.
  • 75 percent say re-enrolling students is a challenge, but only 34 percent believe their districts are doing a good job re-enrolling homeless students who have dropped out of school.
  • 89 percent say they spend just half of their time or less on their responsibilities as liaisons.
  • 34 percent report that they are the only person within their school district who receives training to help identify and intervene with homeless youth and families.
  • Liaisons cite key challenges, including lack of funding (78 percent), lack of time, staff and resources (57 percent), lack of community awareness (36 percent), and inability to find safe spaces for homeless students before and after school (30 percent).

“Couch surfing is the hardest one to be on top of, as the students that have either been kicked out, abandoned or left home…usually do their best to hide it. Only after they are caught sleeping on school grounds or confess to a friend who comes forward, do we find out who is on the streets, and this is usually weeks or months into their hardship…” - Homeless Youth Liaison

Still, 88 percent of liaisons say they believe the young people they work with can graduate from high school college- and career-ready if given the right supports.

chartLiaisons offered numerous suggestions for how to improve the entire process, from identifying homeless youth to connecting them to the service and supports they need.

  • 60 percent liaisons say that enhanced public awareness efforts would go a long way, and emphasize awareness, compassion and breaking down stigmas, both in schools and in communities, as ways to better help their students.
  • Majorities also want more efforts outside schools to notify homeless youth and families of available service (55 percent), more information-sharing among liaisons and those in the field (55 percent), and more professional development (52 percent).


To help homeless students, people at the school, community, state and national level must:

  • 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.
  • Expand outreach efforts to inform homeless students and families of their rights and to raise community awareness.
  • Ensure that schools have the resources to actively engage with homeless students to help them stay in school.
  • Build connections between community organizations and schools, then connect homeless students to those outside supports.
  • Set community and national goals around outcomes and graduation rates for homeless students, and use data to drive progress.
  • Increase efforts to provide more affordable housing.

For a comprehensive list of recommendations, download the full report.


For this study, Hart Research Associates interviewed 44 currently homeless youth, then surveyed 158 young adults (age 18-24) who experienced homelessness at some point during their middle and/or high school years. Hart also convened one focus group with state coordinators, two focus groups with McKinney-Vento liaisons, and conducted an online survey of 504 liaisons.

Youth Survey respondents were screened at the beginning of the survey to ensure they qualified based on the McKinney-Vento definition of homeless youths. Because homeless youth often do not describe themselves as homeless, in several questions throughout the survey the phrase “being homeless or had a very unstable housing situation” was used.

Make a Pledge & Join the Conversation

We must tackle the challenges homeless students face head on. Adults need to be aware that these students are present in our classrooms, programs, and communities, and they need our help.

Pledge to take action and help us work toward a 90% high school graduation rate for all students.


Click-to-tweet We can't allow #HomelessYouth to be Hidden in Plain Sight. Pledge to take action: http://bit.ly/unseenstudentspledge #UnseenStudents

Join the conversation online using the hashtag #UnseenStudents and download the partner and community social media guide.

Hidden In Plain Sight Partner and Community Digital Toolkit from America's Promise Alliance        



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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.


The GradNation campaign – led by America’s Promise Alliance, the Alliance for Excellent Education, Civic Enterprises, and the Everyone Graduates Center at the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University – mobilizes individuals and organizations to raise the on-time high school graduation rate to 90 percent by the Class of 2020, with no school graduating fewer than 80 percent of its students on time. GradNation also aims for dramatic increases in postsecondary enrollment and graduation.

Mentoring Special Populations Grad Rate Data ESSA
The 5 Promises

The 5 Promises represent conditions children need to achieve adult success. The collective work of the Alliance involves keeping these promises to America’s youth. This article relates to the promises highlighted below: