Flexing the Flexibility of ARP-HCY Funding Series: Making the Most of Federal Relief Dollars to Help Students Experiencing Homelessness

This series highlights specific uses of ARP-HCY funds, explains their benefits for students experiencing homelessness, provides strategies to address common concerns, and showcases how school districts are effectively utilizing these funds.

A bipartisan amendment to the American Rescue Plan Act provided an historic $800 million to support the identification, enrollment, and school participation of children and youth experiencing homelessness, including through wrap-around services. While these funds (known as American Rescue Plan – Homeless Children and Youth, or ARP-HCY funds) are one-time funds which must be obligated by September 2024 and spent by January 2025, they have the potential to create lasting changes in how our nation’s public schools and communities respond to student homelessness, while at the same time meeting urgent needs.

ARP-HCY Funds Are Uniquely Flexible. States and districts may use ARP-HCY funds for any of the allowable activities under the Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) program. In addition, ARP-HCY allows for additional uses that were not previously permitted.

Despite these opportunities, some state and local educational agencies may be hesitant to take advantage of the new flexibility provided by ARP-HCY. In some instances, this hesitancy stems from fears about liability or potential misuse of funds. In other cases, reluctance to use funds in new ways results from lack of tools or established processes — for example, not having a way to track and reimburse families for gas vouchers for school transportation. Finally, layers of approval or extensive bureaucratic processes can impede using ARP-HCY funds in the most effective way possible.

This series highlights some specific uses of ARP-HCY funds; explains why these uses may be beneficial for students experiencing homelessness; provides strategies to address common concerns; and highlights how some school districts are using ARP-HCY funds for these purposes. This information is intended to help local schools make the most of this historic opportunity to support some of our nation’s most vulnerable and resilient learners at a time of growing need.

REMINDER: ARP-HCY funds may be used for “any expenses necessary to facilitate the identification, enrollment, retention, or educational success of homeless children and youth in order to enable homeless children and youth to attend school and participate fully in school activities.” Broad categories included in ED guidance include:

  • Providing wrap-around services (which could be provided in collaboration with and/or through contracts with community-based organizations, and could include academic supports, trauma-informed care, social-emotional support, and mental health services);
  • Purchasing needed supplies (e.g., personal protective equipment, eyeglasses, school supplies, personal care items);
  • Providing transportation to enable children and youth to attend school and participate fully in school activities;
  • Purchasing cell phones or other technological devices for unaccompanied, homeless children and youth to enable such children and youth to attend school and fully participate in school activities;
  • Providing access to reliable, high-speed internet for students through the purchase of internet-connected devices/equipment, mobile hotspots, wireless service plans, or installation of Community Wi-Fi Hotspots (e.g., at homeless shelters), especially in underserved communities;
  • Paying for short-term, temporary housing (e.g., a few days in a motel) when such emergency housing is the only reasonable option for COVID-safe temporary housing and when necessary to enable the homeless children and youth to attend school and participate fully in school activities (including summer school); and
  • Providing store cards/prepaid debit cards to purchase materials necessary for students to participate fully in school activities.”

In addition, LEAs may use funds for any of the sixteen uses permitted by the McKinney-Vento Act (42 U.S.C. 11433(d)).

1. Removing Barriers with Store Cards and Pre-Paid Debit Cards

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Children and youth experiencing homelessness often lack basic items needed to attend school and participate fully in school activities: clothing, shoes, food, laundry, hygiene supplies, and school supplies. WIthout these items, they miss school and can become disengaged from their education, contributing to chronic absence, poor academic performance, and higher dropout rates. In fact, the 2019-2020 national average graduation rate for homeless students was 68.2%, which is 13 percentage points below other low-income students (81.3%) and nearly 18 percentage points below all students (86.5%).

Store cards and pre-paid debit cards are an efficient and effective way to equip students for school and remove barriers to their enrollment, attendance, and success. They eliminate the need for liaisons to shop for specific sizes and needs or find a place to store supplies.  In addition, store cards allow families and youth to select items that meet their unique needs and that they will use.

The U.S. Department of Education specifically names store cards and pre-paid debit cards to purchase materials necessary for students to participate in school activities as an allowable use of ARP-HCY funds, and does not prescribe any particular method of tracking these expenses. As with all ARP-HCY funds, it is recommended that the LEA first use community resources to meet these needs, if such resources are reasonably available.

School districts have used the following strategies to ensure effective use of store cards to meet basic needs:

  • Create online forms that are accessible on a phone or other device for parents or youth to affirm the use of the card
  • Require submission of receipts to document purchases with store cards
  • Purchase cards that cannot be used for alcohol and tobacco
  • Require parents or youth to sign for cards when received

2. Transportation

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Lack of transportation is a tremendous obstacle to regular school attendance and success for children and youth experiencing homelessness. They have little control over where they are staying, and can be forced to leave at a moment’s notice. As a result, they move frequently. Families and youth experiencing homelessness also have limited funds for cars, car repairs, auto insurance, gas, or public transportation. Without reliable transportation, regular school attendance is impossible, and contributes to high chronic absence rates among these students; in fact, the chronic absence rate of students experiencing homelessness is twice the rate of other students, and may be a significant factor driving chronic absence rates in districts, particularly if unidentified and unaddressed.

Federal law (the McKinney-Vento Act) requires school districts to remove barriers to enrollment and retention, including transportation barriers. Even when McKinney-Vento families and youth move outside of district boundaries, they are entitled to transportation in order to continue attending their school of origin, if it is in their best interest. 

The U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) guidance makes clear that ARP-HCY funds may be used to provide transportation to enable children and youth to attend school and participate fully in school activities.

In response to specific requests from state and local educational agencies, ED has approved many flexible transportation-related uses of funds if it is reasonable and necessary in a particular context, including:

  • Gas cards
  • Car repairs
  • Auto insurance
  • Ride shares
  • Drivers’ education
  • The purchase of vehicles (for the school district)
  • Bicycles
  • Transportation coordinators

Some school districts have found that using ARP-HCY funds for items such as car repairs and gas cards is particularly cost effective for the student and the district. Similarly, using ARP-HCY funds for longer-term investments like purchasing a vehicle for the purpose of transporting students experiencing homelessness helps ensure that school attendance is immediate and uninterrupted. These school districts have tackled concerns about tracking, liability, and potential misuse to maximize the power of ARP-HCY to improve attendance and participation, which are prerequisites for academic success.

3. Emergency Motel Stays

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Many communities lack emergency shelter for families and/or for youth. Where shelters do exist, they are often full, unable to serve families as a unit, or do not accept youth who are minors who are homeless on their own (unaccompanied youth). When families and youth are not able to access shelter, they stay in cars, campgrounds, or temporarily with other people in situations that are unstable, often unsafe, and put them at risk of trafficking. These unstable situations not only threaten the well-being of children and youth, they create barriers to regular school attendance and participation.

The U.S. Department of Education specifically allows ARP-HCY funds to be used for “paying for short-term, temporary housing (e.g., a few days in a motel) when such emergency housing is the only reasonable option for COVID-safe temporary housing and when necessary to enable the homeless child or youth to attend school and participate fully in school activities (including summer school).”

Paying for a few nights in a motel stabilizes the living situation of students while longer-term housing arrangements are sought, thus helping students be able to participate fully in school. In addition, when ARP-HCY funds are used to pay for a family or youth to stay in a motel room, that family or youth then meets the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) definition of homelessness. This can open up housing options for families and youth who meet the U.S. Department of Education’s definition of homelessness, but do not qualify under HUD’s definition.

School district business offices can help procedures to ensure funds are tracked and used appropriately, and any liability issues are addressed.

Temporary, Emergency Housing: Clifton Public Schools, New Jersey

Clifton Public Schools allocated funds to meet areas of need. One such area is short-term, temporary hotel stays. CPS partnered with a community hotel to provide a few nights of stay for families (averaging about $1,000 per stay). Catholic Charities then extends the stay and links the family to other housing resources. The hotel contracts directly with families, so there are no liability concerns for the district, and store card items can be delivered directly to families at the hotel.

Motel 6 Partnership: Monterey Peninsula Unified School District, California

Monterey Peninsula Unified School District (MPUSD) developed a partnership with Motel 6 for families needing access to emergency housing. Homeless education staff worked with their district business office to track the funding. The school district receives monthly invoices directly from Motel 6, which it then pays with ARP-HCY Part II funds. MPUSD created a streamlined referral process to determine which families are eligible for the short-term emergency housing, and rooms are booked through the office of the Assistant Superintendent of Multi-Tiered Systems of Support. The name of the district support staff working with the family is also entered into the booking system, so that Motel 6 has the direct contact information in case of any issues. Upon checking into the Motel 6, families sign a waiver accepting any liability. MPUSD and Motel 6 specifically included in their MOU that the school district is not liable for any damages incurred. See: Monterey Peninsula Unified Rate Agreement with Motel 6, Monterey Peninsula Unified Preferred Discount Agreement with Motel 6

Leveraging Motel Partnerships in Rural Communities: Lafourche Parish, Louisiana

Lafourche Parish School District (LPSD) is a rural school district that decided to use their ARP-HCY funds to provide students experiencing homelessness and their families with short-term hotel stays for 3-5 days. To develop partnerships with hotels, the district’s Community Outreach Director wrote a letter outlining the definition of homelessness under McKinney-Vento, program information, and addressing the unique needs of families experiencing homelessness in LPSD. The district then worked with social work staff to develop clear guidelines around the case management that would be provided during their short-term stay at the hotel, including meals and transportation. When families arrive at the hotel, case managers walk families to their rooms as a way to provide the initial check-in and assess the support the family may need during their stay. With the success of the initial partnership, the district was then able to expand to work with three additional hotel sites in the community. The approval process for the purchase order initially was lengthy and made it difficult to meet the immediate needs of families. However, with the support of the District Federal Programs Director and district leadership, the transition was made to a district purchasing card. This allowed payment to be initiated at the time of the confirmation receipt from the hotel. After the 3-5 day stay, some families also might transition to the Parish Council who is able to fund additional days in the hotel. According to the McKinney-Vento liaison, the  hotel partnerships provide families a little extra time to figure out their next steps. ARP-HCY funds allowed the district to begin this program, and they hope to continue it through community partnerships after the funds are no longer available.

Community Partnership with Marriott: Cincinnati Public Schools, Ohio

Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) is using ARP-HCY funds to provide short-term emergency housing (1-3 days). CPS is contracting with a community-based organization called UpSpring, since UpSpring already held a contract with Marriott for discounted hotel room stays. In collaboration with district and UpSpring legal counsels, a contract was put in place with a specific process and an open purchase order for providing CPS families with short-term emergency housing. In addition to paying for the short-term hotel stays, the district uses ARP-HCY funds to pay the salary of a Systems Housing Navigator. When families experiencing homelessness meet with the Navigator, she determines the number of motel days that are approved, and sends a referral to UpSpring and to the director of the community’s largest shelter (if the family has no other housing arrangement). Once the family is in shelter, the Navigator follows up to see if the family will be housed through the shelter’s rapid rehousing program, or if they are interested in a CMHA (housing authority) housing voucher. If they are interested in a housing voucher, the Navigator sends a referral. This process allows families to be housed by the time the 30 days in shelter is up.

Hotels.Com Cards and Hotel Vouchers in California

Some school districts in California are providing short-term, emergency housing in several ways: One district has a partnership with to provide a card, using the rate listed on the website, for families to make their own reservation. This removes the liability concern from the district and places it on the parent, with the district paying directly. San Diego Unified School District partners with Project Rest to provide hotel vouchers. Another California school district works with local outreach programs through Catholic ministries to help facilitate the distribution of temporary housing/motel vouchers.

4. Expanding Staff Capacity

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While the McKinney-Vento Act requires that every school district designate a liaison to carry out ten specific duties to identify and support students experiencing homelessness, it is assigned to staff who have other duties. As a result, lack of staff capacity undermines the identification and services available to McKinney-Vento students, and limits community partnerships and coordination.

ARP-HCY funds can be used to increase staff capacity by expanding part-time positions, adding hours to existing staff, or contracting with community-based organizations for additional capacity. School districts have used ARP-HCY funds to support:

To address concerns about sustainability of these positions after the deadline for ARP-HCY funds, school districts can consider the ways in which funding from other sources, like Title I, Title III, Title IV, etc., can be blended and braided to fund positions that will meet the targeted needs of students experiencing homelessness. Additionally, as states and districts make plans for sustainability, it is important to collect data on the outcomes that can be linked to staffing and increased capacity provided by ARP-HCY – for example, increased identification and attendance. These data can be used to make the case for continuing support in the future.

5. Transition from High School to Postsecondary Education

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Some form of postsecondary education is increasingly necessary to obtain employment that pays enough to afford housing and maintain stability. Higher education is thus a critical factor in ending the cycle of homelessness and improving the health and overall well-being of youth experiencing homelessness.

Under the McKinney-Vento Act, local educational agency (LEA) homeless liaisons are required to ensure that unaccompanied homeless youth are informed of their status as independent students for college financial aid and obtain assistance to receive verification for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Additionally, state McKinney-Vento plans must describe how homeless youth will receive assistance from school counselors to improve their readiness for college.

The pandemic greatly impacted many students’ abilities to pursue a postsecondary education due to the disruption in learning and academic preparedness, disengagement and loss of communication during virtual learning, and the youth mental health crisis. According to a recent national report, the number of unaccompanied homeless youth FAFSA determinations declined by about 10% during the 2020-2021 school year. Meanwhile, the number of FAFSA applicants who requested a homeless youth FAFSA determination, but did not receive it by the end of the financial aid award cycle, has steadily increased. This disparity highlights the increased need for assisting youth experiencing homelessness with the FAFSA to help them pursue postsecondary education. 

Guidance from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) explains that ARP-HCY funds supplement the McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) program and that all allowable EHCY uses apply to these funds. ED has approved using ARP-HCY funds for FAFSA support and other activities to ensure college readiness and transition. As with all ARP-HCY funds, it is recommended that the LEA first use community resources to meet these needs, if such resources are reasonably available.

School districts have used the following strategies to help students transition from high school to postsecondary education:

  • Add capacity through extra hours for staff or through contracts with community-based organizations (e.g. graduation coaches, FAFSA mentors, transition coordinators, counselors) to help students complete the FAFSA, apply to colleges, and develop a plan for life after high school graduation
  • Pay college students to mentor and provide peer support to current high school students
  • Use funds to bring students on a tour to local colleges in the area
  • Provide laptops and wifi hotspots prior to high school graduation to allow students to complete high school while also applying for scholarships, FAFSA, and college
  • Participate in training to stay up-to-date on new FAFSA changes and the implications for homeless youth for the 2024-2025 school year

6. Early Childhood

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Homelessness is a traumatic experience with long-term consequences, particularly for young children in their most critical stages of development. Approximately 1 million children under the age of six experienced homelessness in 2020-2021, yet homelessness among young children is hidden. It includes a range of living situations: 

Lack of shelter, fear of having children removed from parental custody, and restrictive eligibility criteria for housing programs mean that most young children experiencing homelessness stay in places that are not easily identified. Ensuring young children experiencing homelessness are connected to early childhood development opportunities is critical and can help mitigate the traumatic, often long-term impacts of homelessness. K12 school districts have a unique role to play in identifying and referring younger siblings of school aged children to high-quality early childhood development programs. 

ARP-HCY Funds Are Uniquely Flexible. States and districts may use ARP-HCY funds for any of the allowable activities under the Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) program. In addition, the U.S Department of Education has approved other uses of ARP-HCY funding, which allows for supports for Early Childhood Education.

School districts have used the following strategies:

  • Add hours to increase capacity of staff to identify young children and ensure families with young children are enrolled in high quality early learning programs.
  • Partner with Head Start and Early Head start to develop a referral system so that liaisons can refer younger siblings experiencing homelessness for enrollment.
  • Conduct outreach during the summer for increased access to screenings and enrollment in early intervention services.
  • Increase joint training opportunities for both early childhood and K12 liaisons and educators to come together and learn more about the impacts of homelessness on young children, educational services and programs offered, and how they can work together to increase identification and referrals.
  • Revise enrollment forms, questionnaires, and information to include questions about younger siblings.

States have used the following strategies:

  • Hire a statewide early childhood homelessness navigator, to serve as a link between early childhood programs and K12 school districts, ensuring younger siblings are being identified and referred.
  • Contract with the state Head Start Collaboration Office to increase identification and referrals, provide more cross-system training opportunities, and improve data collection and sharing.
  • Conduct an early childhood needs assessment that analyzes existing data and practices for identifying and referring young children experiencing homelessness, and identifies areas where state agencies can take action for improvement.

7. Supporting Immigrant Students

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School districts across the country are witnessing increasing numbers of immigrant children and youth, many of whom are staying in situations that meet the definition of homeless under the McKinney-Vento Act. For example:

In addition to experiencing homelessness, these children, youth, and families have often endured trauma during their immigration, and face numerous barriers enrolling and succeeding in school. They may feel fearful as they navigate a new country, new language, and new educational system, and be hesitant to share information about living situations.  Building trust with immigrant families is critical to ensuring identification and support. 

ARP-HCY Funds Are Uniquely Flexible. States and districts may use ARP-HCY funds for any of the allowable activities under the Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) program. In addition, the U.S Department of Education has approved other uses of ARP-HCY funding that can help meet the unique needs of immigrant children and youth experiencing homelessness. 

School districts have used the following strategies to assist immigrant students experiencing homelessness:

  • Add capacity by hiring or adding hours to the position of a bilingual parent liaison to provide support and services over the summer
  • Add extended contract hours for social workers to connect to community resources to support the whole family
  • Pay for translated (written) materials, as well as (oral) interpreters to review information
  • Partner with a community-based organization to increase identification, enrollment, and retention of immigrant students.
  • Provide wraparound services to navigate housing resources.
  • Provide mental health support to process immigration trauma