Ask NCFY: Can I Finish High School if I’m Homeless?

Photograph of a teen boy carrying a backpack.

NCFY recently received this question on our live chat. We have shared an expanded version of our response in order to help other young people going through a similar situation, as well as their case managers.

Q: I’m in high school, and I’m homeless. Can I stay at my current school if I live in a shelter?

A: As a young person living in the United States, you have the legal right to go to school uninterrupted—no matter where you sleep at night. You can keep attending your current school, if that is in your best interest. And you can receive free transportation to and from your current school, if you need it.

Or, if you choose, you can enroll in a new school immediately, even if you’re missing paperwork like medical records or immunization forms.

Your ability to go to school without missing a single day is safeguarded by a federal law known as the McKinney-Vento Act. The act protects the education rights of homeless youth age 21 or younger who don’t have a “fixed, regular or adequate nighttime residence.” The act also provides you with an ally in your school district, called a local liaison, whose job it is to help you stay in school and take part in extracurricular activities like sports teams.

You didn’t mention if you’re currently staying at a shelter, or if you’re trying to figure out your options ahead of time. If you’re already working with a case manager, ask him or her to connect you to your school district’s McKinney-Vento liaison. You can also talk to your principal or contact your state’s Coordinator for the Education of Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness.

When you meet with your liaison, explain your situation and what you need in order to focus on school. There are other federal and state laws that connect students experiencing homelessness to resources like free meals, for example, and that make it easier to apply for college financial aid.

More Resources for Homeless Young People and Youth Workers

Two national groups that promote the education rights of homeless children and youth are the National Center for Homeless Education at the SERVE Center (which receives funding from the U.S. Department of Education) and the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

The Center for Children’s Advocacy in Hartford, CT, has a helpful brochure about the legal rights of homeless youth.

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