Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)



"The 100 Most Frequently Asked Questions" on the Education Rights of Children and Youth in Homeless Situations
National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, 2009


Identification of Homeless Students

Who is considered homeless under the McKinney-Vento Act?

The McKinney-Vento Act defines homeless children and youth as individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate night-time residence. The term includes children and youth who are:

  • sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or similar reasons;
  • living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or campgrounds;
  • living in emergency or transitional shelters
  • abandoned in hospitals;
  • awaiting foster-care placement;
  • living in a primary night-time residence not used as a regular sleeping accommodation;
  • living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings; and/or
  • migratory children living in any of the circumstances described above.

How many children and youth are homeless in Wisconsin?

Since the 2003-04 school year, the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) has required each state education department to conduct an annual survey of students identified as being homeless by public school districts. During the 2003-04 school year, 5,358 students were identified as homeless. At the end of the 2010-11 school year, 13,364 students were identified as being homeless in Wisconsin public schools. Homeless identification has nearly tripled in Wisconsin over the eight years that identification has been required by the USDE.


Are transitional housing programs considered a homeless situation?

Yes. The McKinney-Vento Act specifically applies to children and youth living in transitional shelters. This term includes transitional housing programs and transitional living programs.


Are children and youth who move in with relatives, friends, or other people covered by the Act?

Children and youth who are sharing the housing of others due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason are covered by the McKinney-Vento Act. This can include unaccompanied youth who are running away from home, even if their parents state a desire for the youth to return home. Families who share adequate housing on a long-term basis due to preference or convenience would not be covered by the Act.


Can children or youth be considered homeless if their parents have sent them to live with friends or relatives because the parents are too poor to provide a stable home? Is the answer the same if the parents do not live in the United States?

Yes and yes. Whether a child meets the definition of homelessness rests upon the child’s living situation. A child who has been sent to live with relatives because his or her parents cannot afford to provide safe, stable housing is eligible for the McKinney-Vento Act’s protections. The child is sharing the housing of others due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason. Whether the parents live in the U.S. or elsewhere is not a factor under the law. Further, the McKinney-Vento Act specifies that the right to choose between the school of origin and local school remains in effect, “regardless of whether the child or youth lives with the homeless parents or has been temporarily placed elsewhere.”


If parents send their children to live with friends or relatives because they want their children to go to another school, do we treat the children as homeless?

No. The McKinney-Vento Act provides rights and services for children and youth experiencing homelessness. If children are sharing housing only to attend a different school, they are not covered under the Act.


Are students displaced by a disaster covered by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Act?

Yes. Students who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence due to disaster (earthquake, hurricane, tornado, flood, chemical explosion, terrorist attack, etc.) are considered homeless under the McKinney-Vento Act. McKinney-Vento does not consider the income of a family - only the living situation. Displaced students are entitled to the same legal protections and services as other students experiencing homelessness. A family with financial means may not need the same services as families with limited financial means, but they have the right to remain in the school of origin. Other services would be determined on a case-by-case basis, depending on the needs of each student.


Are children awaiting foster-care placement considered homeless?

Yes. Children and youth awaiting foster-care placement are considered homeless. Children and youth already placed in foster care are not considered homeless in most circumstances. However, the determination of eligibility for services as a homeless student should be discussed both with the district homeless liaison and the social service provider. Social service agencies may be able to define their relationship to the child or youth based on current or prior family court actions.


When adults with children leave their homes due to domestic violence, are the children considered homeless under the McKinney-Vento Act?

Yes. If an adult and accompanying children are living with others or in a domestic abuse shelter as a result of domestic violence, the children are considered homeless.


Are grant funds available to Wisconsin school districts to support services for the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act?

Yes. The U.S. Department of Education makes grant funds available to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction to assist school districts in serving students who are homeless. These federal competitive-grant funds help local educational agencies (LEAs) develop programs to facilitate school enrollment, attendance, and the academic success of children and youth who are homeless. The grant program also helps LEAs develop and adopt best practices to serve children and youth who are homeless. A list of current funded districts is available here.


School District Responsibilities

Do school districts have the responsibility to identify or locate children and youth experiencing homelessness?

Yes. Every school district must designate a homeless liaison for children and youth experiencing homelessness. The McKinney-Vento Act requires liaisons to ensure that “homeless children and youths are identified by school personnel and through coordination with other entities and agencies.” The purpose of identification is to offer appropriate services to the family, child, or youth. Coordination with schools and community agencies is an essential identification strategy, as are professional development, awareness, and training activities within school buildings, school districts, and the community. Do's and Don'ts for District Homeless Liaisons and Enrollment Staff and Ten Strategies School District Can Use to Help Homeless Students provide strategies for homeless liaisons.


What are school districts required to do under the McKinney-Vento Act?

Each school district must designate a homeless liaison. The liaison's responsibilities are to identify and immediately enroll homeless children and youth, then help them succeed in school. The liaison:

  • assists with enrollment and dispute-resolution procedures;
  • informs the parent/guardian, unaccompanied youth, district staff, and community agencies of the educational rights of homeless children and youth;
  • arranges transportation
  • obtains necessary school supplies;
  • ensures students receive free school meals;
  • ensures comparable educational services;
  • works in partnership with community agencies; and
  • has special responsibilities to assist unaccompanied children and youth.

Do students experiencing homelessness receive services "housed" students do not receive?

Yes. Districts are responsible for removing educational barriers limiting a homeless student's full participation in school. Barriers may include lack of transportation; inability to pay for books, school supplies, eye glasses, program apparel, and the like; or policies (such as residential requirements) which may exclude them from enrollment. Students experiencing homelessness have the right to receive transportation to their "school of origin" - the school the child or youth was attending when permanently housed or last enrolled.


What legislative requirements must school districts meet to comply with the McKinney-Vento Act?

For a complete description of legislative requirements, view the full text of the McKinney-Vento Act.


Must private schools comply with the McKinney-Vento Act?

No. Only public schools are required to comply with the McKinney-Vento Act. Individual private schools may determine how they will assist a homeless family or unaccompanied youth.


How does Title I address the needs of children and youth who are experiencing homelessness?

Children and youth from homeless families are automatically eligible to receive Title I services. In addition, school districts must reserve funds when students who are homeless are enrolled in non-Title I schools, or in grades not included in the district’s Title I programming, to provide comparable supplementary academic and support services.


Are all children and youth that are homeless eligible to receive free school meals?

Yes. Homeless children and youth are eligible to receive free school lunch immediately upon their enrollment and/or identification as being in a homeless situation. Meals can and should begin immediately. The homeless liaison can create a list of students eligible for free school meals, the date free school meals should begin, the end date, and give it to the Food Services Coordinator.


How does the new homeless liaison for our district get their contact information changed in the Department of Public Instruction’s Homeless Liaison State Directory?

To update district homeless liaison information in the Homeless Liaison State Directory, the homeless liaison contact information has to be changed in the district’s Consolidated Application on the “staff contact” page. Please ask the district’s ESEA Coordinator to make the changes for the district homeless liaison. The DPI periodically updates homeless liaison information from each district’s Consolidated Application.


Unaccompanied Homeless Youth

How does the McKinney-Vento Act define “unaccompanied youth”? Is there an age range?

Unaccompanied youth is defined as a youth or child attending school, but not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian. The Act does not provide an age range. Unaccompanied youth and children include young people who have been thrown out of their homes, run away from home, and/or been abandoned by parents or guardians.


Are youth who refuse to live at home considered homeless?

Yes, if the parents are not fulfilling parental responsibilities, which usually includes financial support. In addition to young children living without their parents, at least 1.7 million youth run away from home annually due to family conflict, abuse, and neglect or are thrown out of their homes.


What are the educational rights for unaccompanied youth and children?

Unaccompanied youth and children have the same rights as other students experiencing homelessness. Specifically, they have the right to:

  • Remain in their school of origin (to the extent feasible);
  • Transportation to and from the school of origin (the school attended when permanently housed or school last enrolled);
  • Immediately enroll in a new school serving the area in which they are currently living even if they don’t have required documents (e.g., proof of guardianship);
  • Equal access to programs and services such as gifted and talented education, special education, vocational education, and English Language Learner services;
  • A list of community agencies that can help meet basic needs.

Some educational rights will differ if the student is over 18 years of age. If a student is 18 or over, he/she does not need a guardian to authorize educational decisions. Although the student is considered an adult in Wisconsin for legal purposes, McKinney-Vento still requires that the homeless liaison assist with educational issues. Five areas for the homeless liaison to assist are: 1) ensure the student is signed up for Badger Care (, 2) applies for food stamps, 3) discuss the student’s plan for post-secondary education and if appropriate, complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form (FAFSA form) for the student, ask if the student wants school directory information shared publically, and 5) obtain a release form from the student if the parent(s) wants copies of the student’s educational records.

Students under 18 are considered minors and therefore cannot make educational decisions for themselves. The homeless liaison would assist in making educational decisions for the student if the parent is unable or unwilling. The parent(s) or guardian are the legal guardian for students under 18, even if the student is not living with them. The parents have the right to receive educational records until the student turns 18.

All unaccompanied youth and children attending school, no matter their age, should be receiving assistance in making educational decisions from the district’s homeless liaison.



Must school districts identify homeless preschool children who may have special educational needs?

Inclusion of families without a permanent residence in Child Find efforts is required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA). Schools should develop an informed referral network and include families residing in emergency shelters (domestic abuse and homeless), transitional housing programs, and temporary housing arrangements in Child Find efforts.


What programs are available for children prior to kindergarten?

Preschool programs for children too young to attend 5-year-old kindergarten vary among school districts. All school districts offer early childhood special education programs for children with special needs. In addition, districts may offer Title I preschool programs, Head Start, 4-year-old kindergarten, migrant education programs, or child care. To learn what pre-kindergarten programs are available, contact the local school district or area Child Care Resource and Referral Agency.


Must school districts provide transportation for homeless preschool children?

Preschool children do not have a “school of origin.” (Note: School of origin is defined as “the school that the child or youth attended when permanently housed or the school in which the child or youth was last enrolled.”) However, if a child enrolled in a preschool program administered by the public school district becomes homeless, and if the district provides transportation to the preschool program for “housed” children, the district is obligated, at the request of the parent or guardian, to provide transportation to a preschool child who becomes homeless, usually within the district.


Must school districts assist parents who are homeless to find early education programs for their preschool children?

The district homeless liaison is required to discuss with parents the feasibility of enrolling their children in an early education program. If the school district does not administer a preschool program, the liaison may refer the parents to any preschool program in the larger community. The liaison may also refer parents to Head Start or Early Head Start programs in the community.


Where should preschool children who are homeless, who have an older sibling attending the school of origin, be enrolled? In the district they are living or in the district the older sibling is attending?

Under the McKinney-Vento Act, preschool children who are homeless do not have a “school of origin,” since they never attended school. Therefore, preschool children are required to enroll in the school district they are living in. However, this may cause difficulties for a homeless family who is sending an older child to one district, the school of origin, and their preschool child to a different district.

Homeless preschool issues have to be addressed on a case-by-case basis. What is in the best interest of the preschool child under these circumstances? Are significant barriers being created for the parent(s) by sending the children to two different school districts? Are there other circumstances that would create educational and/or emotional barriers for the preschool child to be sent to another district? How long will the parent(s) be living at their present residence?

Technically, the preschool child should be attending the district where the family is living. If there are other circumstances that should be considered, the two districts homeless liaisons should discuss “best interest” issues for the preschool child in question. The two districts must agree, and be willing to pay for half the transportation costs, to allow the preschool child to attend the sibling’s school of origin.

State law, “Thayer” is very clear that a student should be attending the district where the student lives, and the McKinney-Vento Act does not recognize a school of origin for preschool children. However, McKinney-Vento also emphasizes following the best interest provisions, and is also clear that barriers should not be created for the full participation of students in schools. Check for agreement with all the appropriate district staff if you believe that the best interest of the preschool child will be served by sending the preschooler to the sibling’s school of origin.


Community Involvement

What is the role of community agencies in working with school districts to help homeless children and youth?

Collaboration between schools and community partners (emergency shelters, Birth-to-3, Head Start, child care, public health, and human services) improves identification and recruitment of children in homeless situations while increasing the potential for expanding services to families. The homeless liaison is responsible for notifying community agencies of the educational rights of homeless students and refers homeless families and unaccompanied youth to community agencies that can help meet basic needs.


Special Education

Questions and Answers on Special Education and Homelessness
Office of Special Education Programs, US Department of Education, 2008

Frequently Asked Questions about Homelessness and Special Education
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 2011


Dispute Resolutions / Complaints

What happens if a family or unaccompanied youth who is homeless is refused enrollment or transportation services?

Families and unaccompanied children and youth who are homeless may dispute decisions made by the district regarding school selection or enrollment in a school. The homeless liaison is required to assist parents and unaccompanied children and youth through the district’s dispute resolution process. If a dispute is not resolved after going through the district resolution process, the parent or unaccompanied youth may send a request for resolution to the Superintendent’s Office of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Disputes involving homeless issues follow the Chapter PI 1 complaint resolution process. Unresolved complaints should be sent to:

State Superintendent of Public Instruction
P.O. Box 7841
Madison, WI 53707-7841

Children Who Have Recently Arrived to the U.S.

USDE Fact Sheet: Educational Services for Immigrant Children and Children Recently Arrived to the United States


For questions about this information please contact one of our State EHCY Coordinators: 

Kristine Nadolski (608) 267-7338

Susan Piazza (608) 267-1284