Homeless and Low-Income Student Resources
Richard L Benbow, III
The college years are often full of excitement, self-discovery, exploration and growth. Naturally, there are challenges, too. Some of the top stressors come with determining one’s major, maintaining a high GPA, finding the right career path, and affording the high costs of attending, including tuition, books, housing and food. However, for low-income students, completing their education can be far more stressful as it requires them to work just as hard to achieve the same outcome with less stability and fewer resources.
In this guide, learn about the impact of basic needs insecurity, the barriers that low-income students face and those who are more at risk. You can also find assistance programs, scholarships, resources and tips for planning a budget to help you achieve academic success.
A Look at Student Homelessness and Basic Needs Insecurity
Basic needs insecurity is a widespread problem on college campuses. It refers to problems accessing basic needs necessary to ensure a person’s overall well-being, such as food and housing.
Many factors have caused the basic needs insecurity crisis, with the pandemic being one of the biggest issues as it led to school closures, budget cuts and even unemployment. Struggling with basic needs insecurity can have an impact on academic performance. Additionally, it may negatively affect one’s physical and mental health.
Impacts of Basic Needs Insecurity
Basic needs insecurity means problems prevent students from meeting their basic needs. It includes food and housing insecurity and homelessness.
The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice surveyed 130 two-year and 72 four-year colleges and universities to understand the widespread crisis further. There were over 195,000 respondents. Results show that around 58% of college students experienced a form of basic needs insecurity in 2020. Of those studying at two-year institutions, 61% said they experienced basic needs insecurity. Meanwhile, 53% of students from four-year institutions reported basic needs insecurity.
Approximately 58% of students reported that they experienced basic needs insecurity. This includes food insecurity, housing insecurity and homelessness. Specifically, around 34% of students were food insecure, 48% were housing insecure and 14% were homeless.
Based on overall basic needs insecurity, the percentage of affected students was higher at two-year institutions (61%) than those studying at four-year colleges (53%). In terms of food insecurity, 39% of students at two-year colleges were affected and 29% at four-year colleges. The rate of housing insecurity was also higher at two-year institutions (52%) than at four-year institutions (43%). Meanwhile, the rate of homelessness was 14% in both two-year and four-year colleges.
How Does Food Insecurity Affect College Students?
Food insecurity occurs when an individual or family lacks access to adequate food, health and well-being because of financial constraints. Among two-year college students, approximately 38% were affected by food insecurity a month before the study. In four-year colleges, 29% reported food insecurity.
There are four levels of food security. Those who fall under the marginal and high levels are considered to have food security. On the other hand, people who report low to very low levels of food security are going through food insecurity.
Among college students in two-year institutions, 38% were food insecure 30 days before the study. Of these, 22% experienced very low food security and 16% had low food security.
In four-year colleges, 29% were affected by food insecurity — 12% had low food security and 17% had very low food security during the given period.
Homelessness and Housing Insecurity
Homelessness means having no access to permanent housing. Throughout the years, homelessness has become a significant issue in the U.S. The Council of Economic Advisers reported that over half a million people in the country become homeless in a single night.
Many college students also experience homelessness. Around 14% said they were homeless at one point.
Aside from homelessness, many also experience housing insecurity. About 52% of two-year and 43% of four-year college students reported housing insecurity.
More than half of two-year college students said they experienced housing insecurity. Around two in five students in four-year colleges were affected by housing insecurity.
Various factors may result in housing insecurity, with utility, rent and mortgage payments being the top challenges.
The rates of homelessness in two- and four-year colleges were similar at 14%. Self-identified homeless students comprised 3% of respondents from two-year colleges and 2% of those from four-year colleges.
Systemic Barriers Low-Income Students Face
Completing one’s college education can be challenging. For homeless and low-income students, it’s even more difficult because of the unique challenges they have to overcome.
Basic needs insecurity affects a person physically, mentally and academically. The stress of not knowing where to find the next meal or when one will lose shelter can also affect students’ school performance. These problems can also lead to chronic absenteeism, lack of concentration and poor grades.
Struggling to make ends meet and having no access to healthy food can affect a student’s academic performance. Basic needs insecurity can cause stress, lower cognitive function, lack of concentration and poor sleep, which could lead to chronic absenteeism and poor health.
The average tuition and other fees in two-year institutions range from $3,900–$18,000. Meanwhile, individuals studying in four-year institutions pay around $9,400–$37,600. Students who don’t have enough funds may end up working to afford to pay for their education, which adds to their many responsibilities.
Residential life and housing
Housing is a significant problem for low-income students. Challenges include the lack of safe, affordable and permanent housing. Additionally, there are also other expenses like utility bills and rent or mortgage.
Mental health issues
Basic needs insecurity can also be associated with mental health issues. In a recent study on basic needs insecurity, approximately 75% of students experiencing food insecurity screened positive for anxiety and 56% were positive for depression. Of those housing insecure, 65.5% had anxiety and 49.2% had depression.
Which Students Are Most at Risk?
Although basic needs insecurity and homelessness may affect anyone, specific students are more at risk. Students of color, those who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community, first-generation college students and those with foster care backgrounds are more likely to experience food and housing insecurity.
The rate of basic needs insecurity was higher among students of color. LGBTQ+ students were also more at-risk. The basic needs insecurity rate is also higher among female students than male students.
First-generation college students and individuals with foster care experience are most at-risk of basic needs insecurity.
First-generation college students
Among first-generation students, around 64% experienced basic needs insecurity. First-generation students are those whose parents’ highest education level is high school or GED. These students are likely to come from low-income families.
Foster care experience
Approximately 78% of students with foster care experience have been food or housing insecure. Individuals who have been part of the foster care system face systemic and personal barriers due to the lack of access to support and opportunity gaps.
The percentage of students who reported basic needs insecurity is higher among females (60%) than males (53%). That means females are more likely to experience food and housing insecurity while attending college.
Students who identify as LGBTQ+
Members of the LGBTQ+ are also more likely to experience some form of basic needs insecurity, with 65% saying they’ve been food or housing insecure. There are many reasons for this. For instance, LGBTQ+ youth are more likely to be homeless than their peers. Homeless youth are also at risk of having alcohol or drug addiction, suicidal thoughts and depression.
Race or ethnicity
Students of color are more likely to experience basic needs insecurity. Data show that 75% of Indigenous students have experienced it. Around 70% of Black, 70% of American Indian and Alaska Native, 66% of Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiian, 64% of Hispanic and Latino, 62% of Middle Easterner, North African, Arabs and Arab American, and 57% of Southeast Asian students studying in two- and four-year colleges in the country were affected by basic needs insecurity. In comparison, the rate of insecurity among white students was 54%. Racial inequality and discrimination pose different challenges, including financial struggles.
Where to Find Shelters and Housing Assistance
Students facing housing insecurity or homelessness may find that stress and uncertainty negatively impact their academic performance. Worrying about home expenses and the possibility of losing shelter can create anxiety. It can also affect their ability to concentrate in school and learn.
Low-income students struggling with housing can find help and support from organizations and programs specifically catering to homeless people and those experiencing housing insecurity. Different government agencies and local agencies may also offer help in finding affordable housing.
Students experiencing housing insecurity or homelessness can receive assistance from local agencies and organizations. Shelters in your city or state can be found online or by asking peers, professors and school advisors.
Most shelters don’t require anything, especially during emergency situations. Some shelters also offer various services to homeless youth, including kitchen and dining areas, laundry facilities, bathrooms and computer laboratories.
You can use the interactive map below to check for available housing assistance programs and resources available in your state.
Public housing is a government program that aims to help families afford rental housing to avoid homelessness or address housing insecurity. There are about 3,300 housing agencies helping manage the program. You can check the eligibility requirements and application process with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). But generally, the program is for low-income families and individuals.
Options for Homeless College Students
There are two types of public housing. The first one is the more formally defined public housing. The other type is Section 8 housing or the Housing Choice Voucher Program. However, students enrolled in higher education aren’t eligible for Section 8 housing. Fortunately, there are other available housing options for homeless and low-income students.
Call your local housing authority
Look for the local housing authority serving your area. Check if you’re eligible for the public housing program.
Qualify for a federal foster program
There are also various federal foster programs offering financial assistance and care to young adults. Some programs, such as the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program, also cater to individuals who are no longer eligible for the foster care system due to age.
Apply for a resident assistant position
If your school runs a summer program that requires on-campus housing, consider applying as a Resident Assistant (RA). You may get access to housing as part of the employment package.
Check out Greek housing
If you’re a fraternity or sorority member, find out if your Greek house is open during summer. If it is, you may be able to stay there during summer break.
Stay with friends
If you can’t find other options, you may also see if you can stay with friends or relatives. If it’s not possible for the long term, ask if you can stay for a short period while trying to figure out your housing arrangements.
Residential Life Offices
Your school’s Residential Life Office can help you find on- or off-campus housing. The counselors may even provide you with helpful resources. Additionally, they’re more familiar with the community.
Depending on your school, you may also find emergency housing, food, clothing and toiletries for at-risk and homeless students. There may also be other school programs for students experiencing basic needs insecurity.
Off-Campus Housing and Other Resources
When looking for off-campus housing, it’s best to check accessible and affordable places. Depending on your situation, you may opt to live alone or have roommates.
That said, off-campus housing can be a bit expensive. Finding the right resources can help you access cheap housing for students.
There are various housing options available to students off-campus. Explore the following resources for housing suitable for your needs and financial situation.
- American Campus Communities: Find student apartments based on your college location, community name, city or state.
- Sublet.com: Find furnished rooms or apartments in your city, town or area.
- Apartments.com: Search for student housing based on your location and budget. You can also sort options based on the type of housing, amenities and size.
- School website: Some schools have a list of off-campus housing. Columbia International University and the University of Cincinnati are some schools providing this service to their students.
Navigating Essential Costs: Support & Resources
Financial planning is vital for college students. However, with the rising costs of goods and other expenses, money management becomes more challenging. This is especially true for homeless and low-income students.
Aside from tuition, other school fees and school supplies, students have to worry about their daily needs. These include housing, meals, utility bills and health care. Fortunately, there are multiple resources available based on your needs.
Scholarship and Tuition
One of the biggest expenses college students have to deal with is their tuition. The amount may vary depending on the type of school and whether it’s a two- or four-year institution. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the current average for tuition and other school fees is around $3,900–$18,000 in two-year institutions and $9,400–$37,600 in four-year institutions. Financing these costs is a complex challenge that homeless and low-income students have to face.
How They Can Help
The government administers assistance programs to provide financial aid to college students. To determine if you qualify for federal aid, submit a completed Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form.
Low-income college students may qualify for Federal Pell Grants. These are direct grants awarded to students with financial need. The amount depends on the cost of attendance, financial need, student status and plans to attend school for a full academic year or less.
Direct subsidized loans are for undergraduate students with financial needs. The Department of Education pays the interest for subsidized loans while the student is in school at least half-time, for the first six months after the student leaves school and during a period of deferment.
The Department of Education also offers Direct unsubsidized loans. These don’t require financial need. It’s available to undergraduate and graduate students. Unlike subsidized loans, the student has to pay for all interest on the unsubsidized loan.
Tuition fees are only a part of your college expenses. Textbooks and other school supplies can also be costly. The following resources can help you find affordable or free school supplies.
- BuyNothing: BuyNothing helps people give, receive, share or lend things. College students can download the app and use it to search for free school supplies.
- Freecycle.org: Students can check out this online platform where users offload unwanted items. You can get free school supplies or other useful items.
- Craigslist: Although this site is known for selling stuff, you can also get free items. Check the “free” category under the “For sale” section to see if there are available college supplies.
- Community events: Some communities conduct fundraising activities or back-to-school events. College students may be able to locate free school supplies for college students. It would also help to check your public library and local churches.
- Online communities: You can also join online groups on social media sites. Some groups allow the trading of school supplies. You may even find individuals giving away school supplies they no longer use.
Eating healthy is crucial for students. It helps ensure overall well-being. Maintaining physical and mental health also helps students concentrate better in school. However, rising food costs make eating healthy more challenging.
That said, there are available subsidies, aids, programs and benefits that help low-income students address food insecurity.
How They Can Help
SNAP is a government program that offers nutrition assistance to low-income families and individuals. Check your local SNAP office to see if you’re eligible.
The Food Recovery Network has hundreds of chapters nationwide. They provide meals from surplus on-campus and community food sources. College students struggling with food insecurity can benefit from this program.
Student food banks
Some schools have food banks. They gather donations for students facing food insecurity. They also provide information about free or discounted food.
Some campus kitchens offer free meals to low-income students. Check if your school has a similar program.
This site can help you find local food pantries, food banks and soup kitchens. You can also check pantry hours.
Medical care is also essential for college students. Maintaining positive and healthy habits can help improve students’ academic outcomes. Additionally, poor health can lead to chronic absenteeism or even cause more serious health issues.
However, getting proper medical care is hard for homeless and low-income students because of potentially high costs. That’s why it’s essential to find the right resources.
How They Can Help
Campus health center
Most colleges and universities have health services available to their students. These are often on-campus services with full-time staff. Some may also have on-campus pharmacies. The cost of services varies per school, but most have more affordable rates.
Students may benefit from hundreds of public health centers and healthcare for homeless individuals. Thousands of medical professionals provide support across the country.
Homeless college students may be eligible for comprehensive healthcare services through the Health Care for the Homeless organization.
College life can be stressful. Getting help can help students learn how to manage it effectively. Those suffering from anxiety and/or depression should also have access to mental health care services.
Many colleges and universities offer on-campus resources. But you can also consider other programs from advocates and organizations.
How They Can Help
Campus mental health resources
Many schools offer assistance to students dealing with mental health issues. Your school’s student health center may also have available counselors or provide helpful resources.
Off-campus mental health resources
Look for free mental health clinics in your community. Depending on your location, you may also find low-cost facilities that offer free services or reduced rates to low-income individuals.
You may find multiple mental advocates on campus. For instance, your academic advisor can provide valuable insight into how you can deal with stress. There may also be volunteer organizations on campus that offer support to students struggling with mental health.
Some colleges and universities have telephone helplines available to students 24/7. These helplines allow students to talk openly about their feelings and concerns. Typically, professionals handle the calls.
If you don’t live in on-campus housing, transportation may be one of your main concerns. Depending on your residence distance, traveling to and from school can cost a lot over time.
Fortunately, various options are available to homeless and low-income students — from public transportation to carpooling.
How They Can Help
Some schools offer free shuttles to their students. Contact your school to see if they have this program and if you’re eligible for it.
Buses or trains may be more affordable for students. Low-income students may qualify for discounted rates in public transit systems. Some programs also offer students free rides.
Owning a car can be expensive due to maintenance and insurance costs. Consider carpooling if you have a classmate or friend who owns a car. This may help you save some money. You may also consider ridesharing.
Expert Insight on Basic Needs Insecurity
Many college students struggle with basic needs insecurity. MoneyGeek asked industry experts to share insights you can use if you find yourself in a difficult situation.
- What resources, tools or assistance programs can you recommend to students experiencing basic needs insecurity?
- What financial management tips can you share with college students struggling to meet their needs?
- What are the biggest problems students face? How do they overcome them?
- What advice can you give a person experiencing basic needs or home insecurity who wants to complete their college education?
Subject Matter Expert on Homelessness, Housing and Community Development
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of MyElearningWorld.com
CEO and Life Coach
Hunger-Free Campus Program Coordinator at Aims Community College
Executive Director of Homeless Children’s Education Fund
Regional Vice President of Western Governors University
Resources for Homeless and Low-Income Students
For homeless and low-income students, completing one’s college education comes with many barriers. MoneyGeek compiled a list of relevant resources and tools you may find helpful as you navigate your finances and address basic needs insecurity.
- Feeding America: Feeding America is a network of hundreds of food banks distributing meals across the country. Use the search tool to locate a food bank servicing your community.
- Foodbank Locator: Find local food banks by zip code or state.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Assistance Programs: Get information on various food assistance programs with the help of the USDA’s extensive list.
- Why Hunger: Locate community-based organizations and emergency food providers working to end food insecurity.
- National Alliance to End Homelessness: Get tips on getting help in your community for housing, food and healthcare needs.
- ShelterListings: Find shelters and supportive housing with the help of this state-by-state list.
- Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program (YHDP): This initiative aims to reduce youth homelessness. Learn more about this program and check the funding schedule.
Scholarships and Assistance
- Discover’s Directory: Use Discover’s directory of scholarships to find programs available to you. The list also includes deadlines and the amount eligible students will receive.
- Family Fellowship: Learn about the Family Fellowship’s scholarship program for youth in foster care. Find out if you qualify.
- Foster Care to Success: Learn about sponsored scholarships for youth in foster care and see if you’re eligible to apply.
- Grants.gov: Sort through different grants and find the best match based on eligibility, category and agency.
- Scholarships America: Find the right scholarship program for you. Select your state in the dropdown list to check available programs in your area.
- Scholarships.com: Find available scholarships for homeless or formerly homeless college students.
- SchoolHouse Connections: This nonprofit aims to help reduce homelessness through education. Scholarship awardees can get $2,000 they can use for any education-related expenses.
- Studentaid.gov: Learn about government financial aid, loans, grants and work-study programs.
- Winner for Life Foundation: This nonprofit provides scholarships and sponsorships to at-risk youth. Learn about the organization and contact them for information about their scholarships.
About Nathan Paulus
- Coakley, K.E., Cargas, S., Walsh-Dilley, M. et al. "Basic Needs Insecurities Are Associated with Anxiety, Depression, and Poor Health Among University Students in the State of New Mexico." Accessed November 8, 2022.
- National Center for Education Statistics. "Tuition Costs of Colleges and Universities." Accessed November 8, 2022.
- The Council of Economic Advisers. "The State of Homelessness in America." Accessed November 7, 2022.
- The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice. "#RealCollege 2021: Basic Needs Insecurity During the Ongoing Pandemic." Accessed November 7, 2022.