As I was walking out of the gym one evening, I received a text from one of my former peer helpers.  She had reached out to me before when she was in a crisis and I suspected she was in another situation.  Although she had a troubled home life, she never missed school, managed to keep all A’s, and had the goal of attending college. Basically, she was a great kid in a bad home situation.

When she first started in my peer helping program, she had just moved to our school and rarely spoke to anyone.  After a couple of months working in our counseling office, she started to open up, smile, and even participate in activities…this was a huge milestone!!  Half way through the year, we discovered that she had a volatile home life and was on the urge of being kicked out of her house.  I can’t go into the details of why this happened, but let’s just say that her home life really was unpleasant.  So when I received her text, I knew there was trouble. 

To make a long story short, the student had gotten into trouble and her dad told her that she had to be out of the house (it was just after her 18th birthday).  The student was forcibly made to leave her home by her dad with no place to go. She wasn’t allowed to take her phone, she had no clothes or jacket and she was not able to take any of her belongings.  When she texted me (she had bought another phone and had a friend to hold on to it), she told me that she was spending the night in the woods next to her house.  My heart sank…here I am sitting my warm car, traveling to warm house, get to sleep in my warm bed and she is sitting in the woods in the rain!  My first thought was her safety and finding her a safe place to stay for the night.  After I worked on that task, my next thought was to get her into some housing.  I suggested to her that she go to mother’s house in another state, but she resisted.  Although it made sense to me to be with her mother, she told me that she did not want to leave in the middle of her senior year and would have to start over in another school where she lacked friends or caring teachers.  Asking her what she wanted was important because it allowed her to feel she had a choice and she wasn’t helpless.  Her desire was to stay in our school and graduate with her friends.  It took several days and networking, but I am glad to report that she is now safe with temporary lodging until she goes to college next fall. 

Currently, there are so many students and their families who are homeless due to financial situations, domestic abuse, natural disasters, evictions, and many other unforeseen circumstances. For teens who meet the criteria for homelessness (each state has its own criteria for homelessness), referring them to your district’s homeless liaison is the first step in getting them assistance.  However, there are those teens who hide their homelessness pretty well by couch surfing or living with other families. If this student never would have called me, we may have never discovered her homelessness until it was too late to help her.

Helping Homeless Youth

I can’t tell you the number of teens I have who are living in motels and with other families.  We know they need assistance, but often we provide them with “stuff” without asking them about their needs.  Asking homeless teens about their needs is important in helping them feel like they have some ability to make decisions in their own lives.

What Constitutes a Homeless Student?

The federal government, according to Carolyn Stone, defines homeless students as those who lack fixed or regular nighttime residence.  It is estimated that there are over 1.5 million homeless students in the United States each year.  So, there is a great possibility that you have your fair share of homeless students in your school.   Being homeless doesn’t just include living in shelters, but students who live with a relative or friend, in a motel, or an undisclosed location.  The National Center for Youth In Poverty identifies youth who are considered as unaccompanied as homeless.  These students include:

  • Runaways
  • Throwaways (youth who are kicked out of their home).
  • Independent (youth who have no home to return to because of lost contact or familial conflict).
Top Reasons for Homelessness

Why Should Educators Be Concerned?

Simply put, homelessness has a severe impact on a student’s education, health, and livelihood.  The National Center for Youth in Poverty identifies the consequences of homelessness on youth.  These factors include:

Source: FireSteel
  • Poor health– Homeless students are more likely to have sexually transmitted diseases, to become pregnant, or experience malnutrition. 
  • Poor mental health– Homeless students may experience physical or sexual victimization which may lead to PTSD, anxiety, or depression.
  • Poor attendance– Due to lack of housing, transportation, and other factors, homeless teens tend to be chronically absent from school which impacts their academic success.
  • Juvenile delinquency– Homeless teens often lack legitimate means of income which may lead to illegal activities.  These activities often cause youth to be incarcerated or become involved in the juvenile justice system.

Now that we know the seriousness of homelessness, how can we help our students?  The answer is to know your community’s available resources/services and ask your students.

How Can School Counselors Practically Assist Homeless Students?

Agnes and Elizondo (2012) give suggestions on how school counselors can help homeless students. Some tips include:

  • It is important to build relationships with outside agencies in advance so you are able to assist students with needed services and resources.
  • Inform parents and students about services and resources in your area by providing information in as many forms as possible (flyers, your school website, parent meetings, etc.).
  • Make sure you understand the expectations of the organization before making a referral.  Nothing is more disappointing to a family then when they reach out to an organization and they do not qualify for services or resources. Making an appropriate referral is important!
  • Reach out to your school community, homeless liaison, and other school counselors about the resources you have found. It is important to share the wealth!

What Homeless Youth Need

In a California survey on homeless youth, researchers asked youth what they felt homeless teens needed most from those who are willing to assist them. Here is the list of those items provided by teens:

1.  Advice/support from youth their own age
2.  Housing
3.  Let youth define their own needs
4.  Food
5.  Advice based on experience of others
6.  Referral to services
7.  Job assistance
8.  Financial support
9.  Clean clothing/blankets
10. Place to shower

One practical need that your school and/or counseling department can meet for students includes creating care kits. These kits can be made ahead of time and given out in times of need (especially if your community lacks resources).  The Dollar Tree is one organization that provides support and resources for homeless care kits.

Another way to assist teens is to educate your students and staff about homelessness and sponsor a community service project in your school . Do Something provides a way for you to promote your service project in your school by displaying flyers  regarding homeless services for your school community.

School Service Project Ideas for Schools 

Food/Clothing Pantry

Want to start a food and/or clothing pantry for students?  Check out this idea from Washington High School in North Carolina.

Clothing Closet from Washington High School


Start a gift card project and ask for donations.  Gift cards from Target, Walmart, grocery stores, and department stores are very useful to youth and families!

Runaway Kits

Provide a kit with information and supplies to students who may have no choice to leave or have been made to leave home.

This kit can include:

  •  How to obtain college waivers for homeless students, how to get food stamps, medicaid, and much more.
  • Hygiene products like toothpaste and toothbrushes, deodorant, feminine products, and soap and wash cloths. Many organizations will send you trial samples if you write to them.  
  • School supplies like pens, paper, flash drive, small calculator, etc.
  •  Provide information for students who are not interested or unable to stay in high school. Many programs specially target teens who are homeless, in foster care, or have run away from home. Homeless youth are a priority for programs like Job Corp

Since November is Runaway and Homeless Awareness month, it is a great time to educate yourself and your school community about this important issue.

Resources to Aid Homeless Teens

Check out my blog from last November on helping runaway students.
How School Counselors Can Help Runaway Students


Runaway Prevention Curriculum

LGBTQ Resources

Free LGBTQ Runaway Poster

Happy HippiesNon profit organization founded by Miley Cyrus to assist LGBTQ homeless youth.

Safe School Coalition – Information on LGBTQ Youth


NAEHCY Educational Podcasts about Homeless Youth

Suggested Media About Runaways


 Free Downloaded Runaway Poster 

My Rights as an Unaccompanied Youth Poster


Research on Homeless Youth

Resources by State for Homeless and Runaway Youth

Federal Resources for Feeding Homeless Student

Sex Trafficking

Sex Trafficking in Americas Schools: Information for Educators

Human Trafficking Fact Sheet for Schools

Sex Trafficking Assessment for Educators

Tool Kits

Runaway and Homeless Youth Domestic Violence Toolkit

Runaway Youth Toolkit for Schools


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