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Education Challenges for Homeless Youth

Youth need stability to thrive, but for the more than 36,000 youth in Michigan’s elementary, middle, and high schools who face homelessness, stability often is difficult to achieve (Poverty Solutions, 2018). With school about to be back in session, it’s important to remember that attending school regularly and keeping up with academics can be difficult for youth who are struggling with homelessness. There are many barriers that homeless youth face on a daily basis in regard to education. Let’s break down some of the ways not having stable housing can affect youth looking to get an education:


1. Getting a good night’s rest — You know those nights where you toss and turn in your bed and just can’t get any sleep? You feel frustrated and annoyed with yourself and then have to go into work or classes the next day on just a couple hours of sleep. It can cause your whole day to feel off, from your interactions with other people to what you’re able to get done. Now imagine you’re a high school student and the reason you’re struggling to get sleep is because night after night you’re sleeping on a bench in a park. Imagine going into school every day, exhausted, unprepared for tests and barely functioning as you try to work with classmates.

2. Peace and quiet — Settling down at night to do homework can be difficult for even the most studious person. But for a youth who’s homeless, it can be downright impossible. Often times at night the number one goal of a youth who is homeless is finding a safe place to stay. This can be a park, under a bridge, or a friend’s couch. On top of having a hard time getting rest, they now have to figure out how to write the first draft of a paper or how to finish twenty math problems. For youth who are able to stay at a friend’s place for the night, there may be more space to get their homework done, but that isn’t a guarantee. All of this adds up to an obvious disadvantage for a homeless student—with nowhere to reliably work on assignments or to feel like they belong, they are likely to fall behind to no fault of their own.

3. Safety —Without a place to call home, living on the streets and in public spaces can be a constant battle for ensuring your own safety. It can cause youth to develop a constant fight or flight instinct that doesn’t leave even when they get to school, or to end up in unsafe situations just to have a roof over their head. Obviously, when your safety is on the line day in and day out, school can fall by the wayside or be forgotten entirely.

4. Access to reliable transportation — Without a car or access to a bus, a homeless youth can have a difficult time even getting to school in the first place. And even if they can catch a bus  that immediately rules out any chance of taking part in after school extracurriculars. Think about the opportunities lost for a youth who has talent and drive in a particular sport but can no longer attend practices or games. If a youth has no reliable transportation, they can feel isolated as they miss days of school and have to give up on activities they once enjoyed.

5. Being clean and hygienic — We’ve all been there. You’ve decided to forego your shower in the morning because your alarm didn’t go off and now you’re out in public and regretting it. Your hair looks terrible and you feel like you smell even though you put on deodorant. Where we haven’t all been is not having access to a shower every day. Other people may think a homeless youth doesn’t care about their hygiene, when in reality they’re embarrassed and ashamed by the fact that they aren’t able to take better care of themselves. Like many other things on this list, this can lead to them skipping school or dropping out altogether.

6. Having all the needed supplies — This one’s twofold. First, homeless youth, whether they’re with their family or not, struggle to have the money to pay for basic items such as notebooks, folders, and other school supplies. To teachers, this can end up being seen as noncompliance, rather than a genuine inability to bring what they need to class.


What can a teacher, guidance counselor, or other school personnel do if they notice a student struggling with any of these issues and suspect they may be homeless? First, talk to them one on one and see if you’re right. There’s always a chance the student won’t want to tell you, but by letting them know you’ve noticed that something’s going on, you are opening the door for them to share with you when they’re ready, no matter what the issue is.

Second, once you know or have strong reason to suspect that a student is homeless, you can assess the situation and move forward to help connect the youth with the services that work best for them. Whether that’s the Sanctuary Runaway and Homeless Youth Shelter, Common Ground’s crisis line, or a local homeless shelter/community space will depend on the youth’s circumstances and wishes.

As someone who works with and cares about the youth, don’t hesitate to reach out to Common Ground and talk to us about the services we offer and how we can work alongside you and the youth in question to assist them in breaking through the barriers they are facing so that they can be safe and on the best path going forward.

In general, if you are a homeless/runaway youth or know someone who is, you are always welcome to reach out to us. You can call our Royal Oak location at 248-547-2260 or our 24/7 crisis line 1-800-231-1127.



Poverty Solutions -University of Michigan. (2018, May). Child Homelessness in Michigan. Retrieved August 12, 2019, from



Author: May Freck, Youth Empowerment Coordinator at Common Ground’s Sanctuary