The “Invisible Million”: What You Need to Know About Student Homelessness in America

Student homelessness is a pressing issue in America, with over 1.5 million students experiencing homelessness today. Here’s what you need to know about student homelessness.

A  2020 study from the National Center for Homeless Education revealed that student homelessness in America has been on the rise nationally, with a 15% growth just over the past three years, bringing the total number of students experiencing homelessness to over 1.5 million.  According to the Mckinney-Vento Act, student homelessness refers to a student who lacks a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence,” including students who need to share housing with another, sleep in public areas, or stay at hotels. Student homelessness remains an issue that not enough people talk about; they are commonly referred to as the “invisible million” due to how abundant yet undiscussed the problem is. 

Apart from just students in America, a 2017 study from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago states that 1 in 10 young adults ages 18-25 experience some form of homelessness per year, and 1 in 30 adolescents ages 13-17 experience the same. Home insecurity  remains a factor that affects so many youths in America; things desperately need to change. 

Change starts with educating yourself and others on the issue, then collaborating to find ways to help. This article explores what you need to know about students experiencing homelessness in America, from demographics to how you can help make a difference.

Demographic Statistics

Regarding specific demographics that are most affected by student homelessness, the National Center for Homeless Education (NHCE), found that students with disabilities account for 19% of students experiencing homelessness, English learners account for 17%, and migratory students account for 1%. Furthermore, students of color were more likely to experience student homelessness. In a study of student experiencing homlessness in public schools, Hispanic and Latino students accounted for 38% (28% of students in the study were Hispanic) and Black and African American students accounted for 27% (15% of students in the study were Black and African American).White students accounted for 27% (46% of students in the study were White). This is a serious concern as many of these students now risk the harmful effects from homelessness on their lives.

How homelessness affects students

An analysis by Joseph Bishop, Lorena Gonzalez, and Edwin Rivera on student homelessness in California’s K-12 system showed that students experiencing homelessness are “almost twice as likely as their non-homeless peers to be suspended or miss an extended period of school, experience lower graduation rates, and fall short of college readiness standards.” Furthermore, students facing homelessness have higher rates of mental health problems, and they may be more inclined to suffer from low self-esteem, substance abuse, suicide, violence, etc. as well as facing difficulties with classes. In 2017, the Every Student Succeeds Act found that students who have dealt with homelessness are around 20% less likely than their peers to graduate high school, having an average graduation rate of 64%. Homelessness causes many issues that can affect a student’s entire life, well beyond graduation. Here are a few ways you can help.

How you can help

Student homelessness can be intervened by “linking housing, child welfare systems, and public education” (Bishop, Gonzalez, & Rivera, 2021) and by providing services that target families at risk for homelessness. The SchoolHouse Connection lists some services including housing and emergency rental assistance, health care, counseling, transportation, nutrition, mentorship, and more. More people should be educated on the topic of student homelessness as well, including educators, so that they can be on the lookout for signs and help the student. Furthermore, there are many volunteer opportunities where you can personally help students struggling with homlessness; the Volunteers of America Greater New York provides after school programs, volunteer homework tutors, and reading mentors, as well as field trips and educational games for students. You can also donate gently used backpacks and school supplies to shelters. 

Overall,  students experiencing homelessness is an urgent issue that needs more awareness. Over 1.5 million students face homelessness and that number may continue to rise, especially from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Homelessness directly impacts student performance in school, and their mental and physical well-being. Putting an end to student homelessness starts with raising more awareness towards the issue and fighting for change. 


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