Opportunities to Better Identify and Serve K-12 Students Experiencing Homelessness

Homelessness among students in the K-12 education system is a significant and growing issue in Washington. It is a stressful experience that has real consequences for the student’s education. The issue has prompted stakeholder interest into the problems facing homeless students. They want to know what educational and other agencies are doing to identify and help them. And they want to know which strategies can most effectively improve these agencies’ efforts.

This performance audit obtained valuable insights about K-12 student homelessness. It evaluated efforts by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) and school districts. It found opportunities to strengthen how these agencies identifies, supports and connects homeless students to services they need to succeed academically. Finally, it examined how school districts, OSPI and the Department of Commerce use dedicated funding to help these students.

Read a two-page summary.

Report Number 1023748 Report Credits

Key results

The problem of youth homelessness is a far bigger issue than schools can reasonably be expected to solve. However, schools are in a unique position because they are a hub for the vast majority of children. Federal law requires schools to identify students who experience homelessness and connect them with the services and supports they need to succeed academically. Unfortunately, the cost for schools to meet these obligations far exceeds the dedicated state and federal funding that is available.

In the absence of additional resources, the audit’s purpose was to identify actions schools can take themselves to better identify and serve homeless students. OSPI, the Washington State School Directors Association (WSSDA) and the Department of Commerce also have options to help schools in their efforts.

Understanding the complex underpinnings of homelessness, especially as it affects children, is an important focus of public policy work in all levels of government. This audit provides key pieces of information on some baseline issues facing homeless students, including housing and transportation needs, as lawmakers and communities consider how to respond to this growing challenge.


Washington has the eighth-highest rate of identified student homelessness in the country. The number of identified homeless students in Washington’s kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12) education system has grown to more than 40,000. This marks more than a 30 percent increase in student homelessness between the 2012-13 and 2016-17 school years.

Homelessness is a stressful experience that profoundly affects students’ well-being and ability to succeed in school. It is caused by a combination of factors, including economic trends and family crisis. Furthermore, the problem is more widespread than it might at first appear. There are homeless students in both urban and rural settings, in eastern and western Washington, and in all school grades and settings.

School districts are responsible for identifying homeless students and ensuring they succeed in school. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) and the Department of Commerce (Commerce) are responsible for supporting school districts’ efforts to assist these students. However, the needs of homeless students are diverse and complex, extending beyond services schools typically provide.


Educational outcomes

Students who experience homelessness miss classes, change schools and fail to graduate high school far more frequently than other students. The vast majority of homeless students do not live in shelters or on the street, but instead live with others — a practice called “doubling up.” While doubling-up might not seem as severe as living in shelters or on the street, students who double-up have similar educational outcomes.

Our analyses about student outcomes revealed:

  • Despite some recent improvement, homeless students continue to graduate from high school at a significantly lower rate than all students and low income students. In the 2016-17 school year, about 60 percent of homeless students graduated from high school. In comparison, more than 80 percent of the general student population and 70 percent of low-income students graduated from high school.
  • The analysis shows no improvement in school attendance for homeless students in the past five years. In the 2016-17 school year, 62 percent of homeless students attended school regularly. In comparison, 85 percent of the general student population and 80 percent of low-income students attended regularly.
  • Analysis showed small improvements in school mobility, which is the number of times a student changes schools in a school year. In the 2016-17 school year, homeless students changed schools within a district twice as often as other students. This rate was only 2 percentage points lower than in 2013.

Limited funding for districts

The audit found school districts do not receive enough McKinney-Vento and HSSP grant funding to identify and support homeless students.

Federal McKinney-Vento grants and the state’s Homeless Student Stability Program (HSSP) grants are the primary sources of funding to help districts identify and support homeless students. Districts receive a combined total of about $2.5 million a year through these programs. However, surveyed districts estimate they need closer to $29 million to identify and support homeless students. Although almost all districts have homeless students, few receive McKinney-Vento or HSSP funding to help them. Without sufficient dedicated funding, districts face a hard choice: to redirect other funds or limit their ability to identify and support homeless students.

Though it would not address the core problem of insufficient funding, OSPI and Commerce could make it easier for districts to access and use the available funds. There are two ways to approach this:

  • Simplify grant application to encourage more districts to apply for funding
  • Give districts flexibility in using funding help students with food beyond breakfast and lunch, as well as rent assistance

One particular topic of fiscal concern is adequate funding for student transportation. The state’s student transportation funding model compounds the financial effect of transporting students out-of-district because it does not fully reimburse about half the districts. School districts have several options to help reduce student transportation costs:

  • Claim reimbursement for all eligible student transportation costs, regardless of the mode of transportation
  • Establish formal inter-district transportation agreements to share responsibilities and costs
  • Use other alternatives, including providing public transit passes, gas cards or mileage reimbursements to families

Identifying those in need

Comprehensive screening, communication and training strategies can help districts address gaps in their approaches to improve identification of homeless students. Nearly all school districts use three primary strategies to identify students experiencing homelessness:

  • Distributing a housing questionnaire
  • Posting information on school grounds
  • Appointing and training a district homeless liaison

Addressing gaps in such methods can help districts increase their identification of homeless students. For example:

  • Distribute the housing questionnaire multiple times during the year, possibly sending it home with report cards or permission slips
  • Post information about rights and services in places where homeless families are more likely to see it, and post it in a variety of formats
  • Train other school staff, including teachers, nurses and bus drivers, to recognize signs of homelessness
  • Screen student data for indicators of problems such as poor attendance, missed course work, and requests for enrollment and transportation changes

Supports in and out of school

Students who are homeless often need additional support to succeed educationally, both in and out of the classroom.

Immediate enrollment —  Schools are required to enroll homeless students immediately, but one-third of the districts we interviewed said they do not fully enroll students until they have essential records from the previous school. Districts can help ensure immediate enrollment of homeless students by:

  • Training staff on legal requirements
  • Provisionally placing students in class
  • Clarifying records transfer policies

Greater academic flexibility — Homeless students may have difficulty finding a quiet place to study or do homework, and may struggle to complete assignments on time. Districts can help students succeed by:

  • Offering more flexibility with assignments
  • Offering alternative avenues to earn credit, which is also required by law

Connections to community resources — Federal law requires school districts to connect homeless students with community resources to address needs that extend beyond services districts typically provide, such as housing and mental health care. Districts can better connect students with resources by:

  • Partnering with their counties’ Coordinated Entry agencies
  • Developing and improving local community partnerships and referral services

The audit found some school districts have taken extraordinary steps to further increase homeless students’ access to services.

Making transportation decisions — Federal law also requires school districts to use student-centered factors when determining school placement for homeless students. Homeless students often face difficult trade-offs between changing to a new school or staying in their current school and having a long commute. Either choice can affect their education. Districts can help by:

  • Educating families to help them weigh whether it is more beneficial for the student to change schools or maintain a long commute
  • Involving families in the development of students’ transportation plans

State guidance can help

OSPI and the Washington State School Directors Association (WSSDA) have roles to play statewide.

  • OSPI supports district efforts by providing funding, guidance, training and resources
  • WSSDA supports district efforts through model policies and procedures

Both these agencies can help school districts help homeless students by providing additional guidance, especially on best practices and interpretations of the law. In addition, OSPI could expand its training delivery and content to address districts’ needs. Furthermore, OSPI could consider facilitating an online forum for homelessness liaisons to share information statewide, similar to those put in place by other states.


The audit makes a series of recommendations for school districts. It offers them strategies that can help them:

  • Strengthen identification of homeless students
  • Provide in-school supports for these students
  • Better connect students to community services

Also, we recommended that OSPI and WSSDA increase support for school districts through additional guidance, training and resources. Finally, we recommended that OSPI and Commerce make it easier for districts to access and use available funds to meet students’ needs.