Strategies for Supporting Immigrant and Migrant Students Experiencing Homelessness

This resource provides an overview of the rights of immigrant, migrant, and undocumented children and youth; strategies and best practices for supporting immigrant and migrant children, youth, and families; and ideas for using American Rescue Plan-Homeless Children and Youth (ARP-HCY) funds to serve these populations.

Download the PDF

With an increase in students arriving to the U.S. from other countries, many local educational agency (LEA) homeless liaisons have questions about eligibility for services under the McKinney-Vento Act, as well as strategies for best serving these students.

Important Terminology

Educational Rights of Undocumented Children and Youth

McKinney-Vento Act Eligibility of Immigrant and Migrant Children and Youth

Many immigrant students and families experience homelessness upon arrival to the United States. Often, they are fleeing violence or natural disasters in other countries. Initially, they may stay with family or acquaintances due to the loss of their housing and/or economic hardship; these living situations typically meet the definition of homelessness in the McKinney- Vento Act. Many families who receive resettlement services upon arrival cannot sustain housing when that support ends in a few weeks or months.

The McKinney-Vento Act covers children and youth who are:

  • Sharing the housing of others due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason;
  • Staying in motels, campgrounds, or trailer parks due to lack of an adequate alternative;
  • Living in emergency or transitional shelters;
  • Sleeping in cars, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus stations, or similar settings; and
  • Migratory children living in any of the above situations.

Strategies and Best Practices to Support Immigrant and Migrant Children and Youth

1. Identify Immigrant Families Experiencing Homelessness

Families may be more open to being identified under the McKinney-Vento Act if the terminology used is more culturally-responsive. Consider asking questions such as:

Provide private spaces for youth or families to meet with staff and confidentially share living situations. It is also important to recognize that there may be cultural implications when families are staying in the homes of people to whom they are related. While multigenerational families may be a cultural norm, homeless liaisons must evaluate each situation individually. To help distinguish between shared multigenerational housing and homelessness, use identification questions such as:

2. Collaborate across Programs to Provide Wraparound Services:

Collaboration across programs (McKinney-Vento, Migrant Education, Translation and Interpretation Services, English as a Second Language Services, etc.) streamlines programming for both school staff and families. Consider a “one-stop-shop” for families to access services in one place. Additionally, developing cross-trainings for programs is an important strategy for helping staff know the qualifications for other programs and make referrals. Consider collaborative training so that school staff learn about all programs that are available to families, and how they intersect.

In Metro Nashville Public Schools, approximately 30% of their identified students experiencing homelessness are a result of referrals from their Title III English Learner program. MNPS offers joint professional development sessions for both the McKinney-Vento and Title III English Learner programs so that staff can learn about immigrant, migrant, and refugee students, as well as signs of homelessness.

3. Provide Families with Information and Support They Can Access:

Once identified, liaisons should ensure that students and families receive information and support. This could include the following practices:

4. Remove Barriers for Immigrant Children, Youth, and Families

Since language can often be a major barrier for immigrant students, LEAs should provide translation services, including translations of key documents, and ensure documents are written at an accessible reading level.Children, youth, and families also may speak indigenous languages as a primary language, or lack literacy skills in their native languages, so it is important to offer translation services beyond written documents. For example, consider verbally interviewing families for more information on their housing status, instead of requiring the completion of a housing questionnaire. Make sure information about McKinney-Vento and other rights is provided in a way that is understandable, rather than simply handing out a brochure.

New Philadelphia City Schools (OH) utilizes a Spanish-speaking interpreter to enroll students in school. Recognizing that students and families may speak Spanish as a second language and speak an indigenous language as a first language, the interpreter provides both a translated housing questionnaire and a verbal explanation of the questionnaire. During the verbal interview with the family, the interpreter is able to explain the meaning of doubled up and the McKinney-Vento Act and remove the literacy roadblocks to identifying students.

5. Build Relationships with Community Partners

Relationships with community partners are crucial, and it is the responsibility of the homeless liaison to refer families experiencing homelessness to community resources. Homeless liaisons should build partnerships with services that are accessible to students and families, regardless of immigrant status. Some national organizations with local affiliates include:

Strategies for Supporting Immigrant and Migrant Youth who are Unaccompanied

1. Building trust is essential

Be aware that services for families may be off-putting or inaccessible to students who do not have a legal guardian. There is also a very real fear of being reported to Child Protective Services (CPS) or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Tools to help school staff build trust with unaccompanied immigrant youth include:

2. Identification

Unaccompanied youth may be placed with “sponsors” through the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Having a sponsor does not affect identification under the McKinney-Vento Act. Sponsors do not have legal responsibility for youth, and if the living arrangement with a sponsor is not fixed, regular, and adequate, the student will be eligible for McKinney-Vento protections. In addition, sponsor arrangements often fall apart over time, leading to more instability, displacement, vulnerability, and trauma.

3. Accommodate unique circumstances

Many unaccompanied youth are playing dual roles: attending school to complete their education, while also trying to provide for their family in their country of origin. Many unaccompanied youth work long hours at their jobs in order to remain living with their sponsors, send money to their families, and pay off debts incurred when immigrating to the U.S..

In New Philadelphia City Schools, Ohio, the district acknowledges and honors both education and work responsibilities by working with students to arrange their schedules in such a way that if students commit to regular attendance, they can end their school day early to go to work.

Consider the Unique needs of Migrant Families Experiencing Homelessness

Greeley-Evans School District 6 works closely with the state’s regional education offices or BOCES. The BOCES offices house Migrant Advocates who are responsible for identifying migrant students. School district staff partner with the Advocates to share information on families who may not have stable addresses. The district utilizes a Student Information System in which they are able to track students identified as both migrant and McKinney- Vento. The key to collaboration is the referrals made between district staff and BOCES advocates.

Higher Education Opportunities for Undocumented Youth

(Please note that states are frequently updating and changing in-state tuition and financial aid information for undocumented youth. Please make sure to check this information for your state.)

Use American Rescue Plan-Homeless Children and Youth (ARP-HCY) Funds to Support Immigrant and Migrant Children & Youth Experiencing Homelessness

The American Rescue Plan Act provided $800 million in funding specifically dedicated to support the identification, enrollment, and school participation of children and youth experiencing homelessness, including through wrap-around services. These funds can be used to support immigrant and migrant students experiencing homelessness. For example, LEAs can contract with community-based organizations (CBOs) that already provide services to immigrant or migrant families and have connections to the community. ARP-HCY also funds can be used to hire staff to increase LEA capacity to serve immigrant and migrant families. For example:

For more ideas about how to use ARP-HCY, take a look at SchoolHouse Connection’s  Allowable and Strategic Uses of ARP-HCY Funds and our ARP-HCY spotlights

Additional Resources: