Student homelessness doesn’t always look like we expect. Instead, we may notice struggles or behaviors that reflect the trauma of losing housing, sleeping on someone’s couch, staying in a shelter, or sleeping in a car. A national study found that 67% of students experiencing homelessness were uncomfortable telling people at school about their homelessness and asking for help. Therefore, it’s important to pay close attention to certain behaviors and other signs that may indicate homelessness.
Percentage of students who report feeling uncomfortable disclosing their homelessness and seeking help at school
This resource describes certain struggles or behaviors that may be indicators of homelessness, explains how we can reframe our thinking to better support students, and offers strategies to assist in the identification process by looking for red flags and reaching out to the building social worker or point of contact.
Potential Indicators of Homelessness:
- Tardiness or absences
- Poor hygiene, wearing the same clothes repeatedly or not appropriately dressed for the weather
- Unmet medical/dental needs
- Missing the bus
- Sleeping in class, fatigue
- Enrollment at multiple schools, lack of records, gaps in learning
- Social and behavioral challenges like extreme shyness, anxiety late in the school day
- Lack of participation in field trips or after school activities, lack of school supplies
How to address tardiness or absences:
Reframe the tardiness! Use phrases like:
- “We are so glad you made it today; it is so nice to see you! I’d love to introduce you to our building social worker who can try to help make it easier to get to school.”
- “It seems like this morning might have been stressful for you. Is there anything I can do to help?”
Withhold judgment on absences – sometimes families are doing the best they can in the midst of chaos. Use phrases like:
- “It seems like attendance has been a challenge, is there anything we can do to help?”
- Would you be interested in talking to the social worker about possible extra support we may be able to provide?”
- “We will miss your child today! Please know that we have additional support to help your family, if you are interested in learning more.”
How to address hygiene:
Hygiene concerns may include wearing the same clothes repeatedly, not being appropriately dressed for the weather, or lacking clean laundry.
- Be sensitive to what a student’s living situation might mean for their ability to do laundry or take clothes with them when moving (including weather appropriate clothing).
- Offer kindness and withhold judgment. Use phrases like:
- “It’s been really cold lately at recess, and I want to make sure you have what you need to play with your friends. Let’s stop in the social worker’s office to grab some extra gloves on our way outside!”
How to address unmet medical or dental needs:
Recognize when a student might need to be connected to the building social worker or school nurse for unmet needs, such as glasses. Consider the following ways to help support students with these unmet needs:
- “I’m concerned that you’ve had to work extra hard to see the smart board. Let’s go after class to check in with our school nurse who can help us figure out if maybe you need glasses. If you do, school can help!”
- “You are always welcome to stop in the health office if you need something, but I wonder if it might be time to check in with a doctor. Do you have one you see? If not, our health office can work with the social worker to help get you connected to one”
How to address missing the bus:
Students may miss the bus consistently, or be dropped off or picked up from their regular bus stop. This can contribute to higher numbers of tardies or absences. Consider reframing the missed transportation:
- “I noticed you haven’t ridden the bus this week. I’ve missed seeing you in the mornings! I’m glad to see you today, and I would be happy to talk to the social worker at your school to see if school can help with another transportation option.”
How to address sleeping in class/fatigue:
Recognize that a student who is sleeping in a shelter, on someone’s couch, or in their car is likely not getting a good night’s sleep.
- “I can see you’re super tired. We’re going to have work time in a little bit. Why don’t you take a few minutes to put your head down and take a few deep breaths before you get to work?”
How to address hunger:
Students who are hungry struggle to learn.
- “It seems like a snack might help you focus. Would you like to visit the social worker’s office to grab a quick snack?”
- “I noticed you haven’t been eating during lunch time; would you be interested in talking with our social worker about accessing school meals?”
How to address enrollment at multiple schools, lack of records, gaps in learning:
Students may seem disengaged in class if they’ve missed important learning and are lost or confused by the material.
- “I know you weren’t with us when we reviewed this information earlier in the year. I’ll check in with you during work time, and we’ll make a plan to get caught up”
- “You’re always welcome to come to my room during study hall or resource time. Any one of the teachers in this room would love to work with you!”
How to address social and behavioral challenges like extreme shyness, and/or anxiety late in the school day:
Students who don’t know where they will be at the end of the day may exhibit behaviors of anxiety or stress when it’s time to get ready to go home. Offer stability at school and in the classroom instead.
- “I know the end of the day can be hard. Let’s make sure you have a space here at school to leave what you need, and I’ll make sure it’s right here where you left it tomorrow morning.”
Students may seem withdrawn or disengaged, especially if they’ve changed schools a lot and are afraid to get connected to peers or adults in case they move again.
- “I can see that you’ve changed schools a bunch of times and that must be hard. I am glad you’re here, no matter how long, and I’d love to connect you to the social worker to talk about how we can keep you in our class!”
How to address lack of participation in field trips or after school activities, lack of school supplies:
Talk to the liaison or other student services staff about accessing supplies to help provide after-school opportunities or needed supplies for the student.
- “It looks like you could use a few extra pencils and a new notebook. We’ve got some extras here at school, so I’ll make sure you have what you need”
- “You’re an important part of our class, and I want you to be able to participate with your classmates. Is it okay with you if I work with the social worker to get permission from your parent so you can go too?”