Understanding Student Homelessness
and Support Services

Mary Ann Priester

Senior Management Analyst
Mecklenburg County
Community Support Services

As we begin the 2023-2024 school year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) already has 2,369 students who are enrolled in McKinney-Vento services. CMS closed out the 2022-2023 school year with 4,815 homeless students, a 15% increase from the 4,206 students (including Pre-K and younger siblings) who experienced homelessness and housing instability during the 2021-2022 school year. Homelessness has a significant impact on the physical and mental health of children, often resulting in diminished social-emotional and academic well-being. Children experiencing homelessness and housing instability are at risk for higher rates of school absenteeism, poorer performance in math and reading assessments, school suspensions, and have an elevated risk of high school drop out.

This blog provides an overview of student homelessness and the services that are in place to support them.


According to the National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE), during the 2020–2021 school year, more than one million children and youth were enrolled in public schools across the United States while experiencing homelessness. Of these, 77% lived in doubled up situations, 11% lived in shelters, and 7.8% lived in hotels or motels. Conversely in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, during the same time period, 65% were doubled up, 23% reported being in hotels or motels, and 11% lived in shelters or transitional housing. The percentage of students living in hotels or motels in Charlotte-Mecklenburg is almost three times what we see in national data.

Nationally, when examining student homelessness by race and ethnicity, Hispanic or Latino (39%), White students (26%), and Black or African American students (24%) are the largest subgroups. With the exception of students who identified as Asian, students who experience homelessness are disproportionately students of color when compared to the overall student population. Further, students with disabilities and English learners are the largest subpopulations of students experiencing homelessness with students with disabilities accounting for 20% of the homeless student population (vs. 15% of overall student population) and English learners accounting 18% of the student homeless population (vs. 10% of the overall student population).

Students belonging to racial and ethnic minority groups, pregnant and parenting students, as well as LGBTQ students, face a notably higher likelihood of encountering homelessness. During high school, Black students have a 2.25 higher likelihood of experiencing homelessness, while Hispanic students have twice the likelihood compared to their white counterparts.


Students experiencing homelessness encounter numerous educational obstacles due to frequent relocation, economic hardship, and the psychological impact of homelessness. Homelessness can also impact their physical, emotional, and educational well-being.

Key impacts of homelessness on students include:

  • Physical Health: Lack of consistent access to proper nutrition, hygiene facilities, and healthcare can lead to health issues such as malnutrition, infections, and chronic illnesses.
  • Mental and Emotional Health: Instability and stress can lead to increased levels of anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges. Students may also experience feelings of shame, isolation, and a sense of insecurity.
  • Academic Disruptions: Changing schools frequently can lead to gaps in learning, missed lessons, and difficulty in keeping up with peers.
  • School Attendance: Lack of transportation, unstable housing arrangements, and family disruptions can lead to absenteeism and falling behind in coursework.
  • Educational Performance: Homeless students often perform lower on standardized tests and academic assessments compared to their housed peers.
  • Graduation Rates: Homeless students are at a higher risk of dropping out of school due to the various challenges they face.
  • Social Isolation: Homeless students may experience social isolation due to the stigma associated with homelessness. They may have difficulty forming friendships and engaging in extracurricular activities.
  • Family Dynamics: Homelessness can strain family relationships, leading to increased stress and conflicts within the household.
  • Limited Resources: Homeless students often lack access to necessary school supplies, technology, and a quiet place to study, which can hinder their ability to complete assignments and keep up with coursework.
  • Future Opportunities:  The educational challenges faced by homeless students can have long-term implications on their future opportunities, making it more difficult for them to pursue higher education and stable employment.

For a detailed research summary of the impacts of student homelessness click here: NCHE Summary of Research 


To mitigate the impacts of homelessness for students, programs like the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act provide support and resources to help homeless students access education and essential services, with the goal of leveling the playing field and improving their likelihood of academic success and overall well-being.

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, often referred to as the McKinney-Vento program, is a federal law that addresses educational rights and support for homeless children and youth. The act was first passed by Congress in 1987 and has been reauthorized and amended since then. It mandates the allocation of Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) grants by the U.S. Department of Education to state educational agencies (SEAs), which subsequently distribute subgrants to local educational agencies (LEAs), often known as school districts. Every school district is required to designate a local homeless education liaison. This liaison’s responsibility is to ensure that children and youth experiencing homelessness are provided with necessary services.

The goal of the McKinney-Vento program is to address the educational challenges that homeless children and youth often face due to their unstable housing situations and to ensure that homeless students have equal access to a free and appropriate public education, despite their housing instability. Student challenges can include disruptions in schooling, lack of basic necessities, increased mobility, and social and emotional difficulties. By providing legal protections and support services, the program aims to ensure that homeless students have the opportunity to receive a quality education and improve their future opportunities.


The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act guarantees equitable access to public education for children and youth facing homelessness. McKinney-Vento provisions are crafted to prevent the isolation of homeless students, guarantee transportation between a student’s original school and their home-zoned school, mandate a swift enrollment procedure, determine placements with the child’s best interests in mind, and appoint a local liaison dedicated to homeless children and youth.

The McKinney-Vento Act provides specific rights and services to homeless students including:

  • Immediate Enrollment: Homeless students must be allowed to enroll in school even if they lack typical enrollment documents, such as proof of residency or immunization records.
  • School of Origin: Homeless students have the right to continue attending their “school of origin,” which is the school they were attending before becoming homeless. This is important for maintaining stability in their education and relationships.
  • Transportation: If it’s in the student’s best interest to attend their school of origin or home and transportation is needed, the school district is required to provide transportation services.
  • Free Meals: Homeless students are automatically eligible for free school meals.
  • Support Services: Schools must provide homeless students with access to educational and support services, which might include tutoring, counseling, and other assistance to help them succeed academically.
  • Dispute Resolution: The McKinney-Vento Act includes procedures for resolving disputes between schools and homeless families regarding enrollment, transportation, and other educational matters.
  • Privacy and Confidentiality: Schools must protect the privacy and confidentiality of homeless students’ information to prevent stigma and discrimination.


Children identified as eligible for McKinney-Vento services may be considered either literally homeless (unsheltered or sheltered) or may be experiencing housing instability (such as in a hotel and/or motel or living doubled up with family and/or friends). Children who are impacted by human trafficking are also included in the McKinney- Vento Homeless Act definition. The following persons are eligible for McKinney-Vento services:

Those who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence, including students:

  • Sharing housing due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason
  • Living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, camping grounds due to a lack of alternative, adequate accommodation
  • Living in emergency & transitional shelters
  • Abandoned in hospitals
  • Living in public or private places not designed for or ordinarily used as regular sleeping accommodations for human beings
  • Living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, bus or train stations or similar situations
  • Migratory children living in the above situations

For more info on McKinney-Vento eligibility click here: NCHE Eligibility Flow Chart 


It is important for educators, community members, and service providers to be aware of federal laws in place to support students experiencing homelessness so that students can quickly be connected to services. Student homelessness has profound and wide-ranging short-term and long-term impacts for both the student and the education system. These impacts can be mitigated by ensuring that homeless students are connected to the resources and services for which they are eligible, thereby improving student outcomes and educational equity.

For more information on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools McKinney-Vento Services, click here: CMS McKinney-Vento Brochure: English Spanish