Know Your Rights: Homeless Students 

Know Your Rights: Homeless Students 

IEV Staff

A 2019 survey of 40,000 students at 57 California Community Colleges revealed 60% of them were housing insecure in the previous year and 19% were homeless during the same period.

The survey noted of the 1,952 students who responded from the Inland Empire and Desert Region, the numbers were only slightly better—58% were housing insecure and 15% were homeless.

Despite the hardships faced by these students, the National Center for Homeless Education reported many  unaccompanied homeless youths aspire to higher education but find the barriers to enrollment and attendance to be overwhelming. There are, however, support services available for these young people at the state and federal level.


The McKinney-Vento Act

The McKinney-Vento Act provides rights and services to children and youth experiencing homelessness. This legislation defines an unaccompanied homeless youth as a youth whose living situation is not “fixed, regular, and adequate” and who is “not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian.” This can include those who have run away from home or have been asked to leave home by a parent or guardian.

College Cost Reduction and Access Act

According to a 2015 survey by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, finances are the second most common barrier that homeless youth face in accessing postsecondary education—with “lack of knowledge of services available” taking first place.

Unaccompanied youth are often estranged from their parents, which leads to difficulty with filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form which in most cases requires them to provide information about their parents’ finances and to have their parents sign the completed form. The College Cost Reduction and Access Act includes provisions to assist unaccompanied homeless youth in filling out the FAFSA form.

Designation of Independent Student

The designation of “independent student” is critical to enable them to complete the FAFSA. The status of independent student status must be made by one of the following:

  1. A school district local homeless education liaison
  2. A U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development emergency shelter program director or its designee
  3. A Runaway and Homeless Youth Act program director or its designee
  4. A college financial aid administrator
  5. If a young person becomes homeless and unaccompanied after graduating high school and has not stayed in a HUD- or RHYA-funded shelter, he or she will need to depend on a financial aid administrator at the college/university to make the independent student determination.

On-Campus Outreach and Support

Institutions of higher learning are encouraged to identify unaccompanied homeless youth who attend their college or university

  1. Referring unaccompanied homeless students to support services upon their admission.
  2. By placing posters and brochures around campus with the definition of homeless and contact information for someone who can link homeless students with support services.
  3. Creating awareness among faculty and staff about unaccompanied homeless youth and the challenges they face so they can help with identification and support.
  4.  Establish coordination between financial aid offices, student support services and campus housing.
  5. Providing financial aid offices and student support services with information on community-based resources for homeless students, such as food and clothing banks and low-cost healthcare providers.
  6. Creating awareness among professors and advisors working with students so they can refer homeless students to additional help, when needed; specific signs to look for include excessive absences and falling grades.
  7. Establishing a food and clothing bank on campus.
  8. Planning housing for homeless students when dormitories close; ideas include leaving one residence hall open or establishing a list of “host homes” in the community.
  9. Offering a mentoring program for unaccompanied homeless youth.


Student Support Services

Student Support Services is a U. S. Department of Education Resource program which assists low-income students with staying in college until they earn their degrees including those who are homeless or have aged out of the foster care system. The program authorizes funds to be used for temporary housing during breaks in the academic year for homeless students and students who are in foster care or are aging out of the foster care system. Visit for additional information.

Educational Opportunity Centers

The Educational Opportunity Centers (EOCs) are funded by the U.S. Department of Education designed to support and assist students from disadvantaged backgrounds in progressing through the academic pipeline from middle school to attainment of a post-baccalaureate degree. EOCs offer a variety of services including support to improve the financial and economic literacy of participants. A key objective of the program is to provide advice on financial aid options, including basic financial planning skills, and to assist in the application process. Visit for additional information.

Research Findings by Public Higher Education System

UCs offer the most programs and services for homeless students, followed by CSUs. California Community Colleges offer significantly less resources.


Recent studies reveal most unaccompanied homeless youth between the ages of ages 18-24 have career goals requiring college completion and recognize higher education is key to overcoming their poverty and unstable circumstances. Knowing what resources are available to assist them with this quest is a critical component of success.

About The Author

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