Literacy rates in the United States are among the highest in the world, and completing high school, and increasingly post-secondary education, is considered a norm. However, for many youth experiencing homelessness, staying in school is a difficult challenge. Studies find that 63% to 90% of youth experiencing homelessness did not complete high school, despite being the age to have done so.

Education is an important aspect to our understanding of homelessness. First, individuals with lower educational attainment are at higher risk of unemployment, underemployment and poverty. A study conducted by OHRA found that 64% of shelter users did not complete high school versus 34% for all Canadians and, when compared to information on employment, found that those who did not drop out were more likely to be employed. Second, for many youth experiencing homelessness and children, homelessness can disrupt their efforts to stay in school and often leads to dropping out despite their desires to remain in school. Third, while this is changing, providing educational supports for people experiencing homelessness often takes a back seat to more immediate needs such as shelter and food. 

Barriers & Challenges

One of the consequences of youth homelessness is being forced to withdraw from school. In some cases, the contributing factors that led to a young person’s homelessness also had an impact on their school success. In other words, they were already at risk of dropping out. In other cases, school may not have been affected. However, when homelessness results in an individual having to leave their community, dropping out of school becomes an even more likely result, regardless of school performance to that point.

Once on the streets, returning or continuing school becomes a real challenge. Without access to affordable housing, adequate income, proper nutrition, and trusting supportive adults, school is often not a realistic possibility for street youth. In the United States, our approach to youth homelessness and the infrastructure we have in place to respond to it typically does not support young people who wish to return to, or stay in school. By denying youth experiencing homelessness with adequate opportunities to obtain an education, advocates argue that we are condemning such young people to a life of poverty. 

For families experiencing homelessness, ensuring that children stay in school is often a struggle. Families experiencing homelessness are often forced to move to family shelters that are a great distance from their communities. Children have no other option but to enroll in a new a school, and because of the poverty facing such families, they are at a disadvantage in obtaining a good education. While most Americans would agree that all children and youth should have access to a good education, the experience of homelessness and poverty makes this difficult, if not impossible.

Some of the barriers to education include:

  • Housing instability

  • Displacement

  • Negative familial relationships including lack of parental support

  • Domestic violence

  • Health conditions and learning disabilities

  • School enrolment policies

  • Lack of transportation

  • Inadequate nutrition

  • Lack of inter-agency collaboration

  • Discrimination

  • Download of school responsibility solely on children and youth

Education