Students experiencing homelessness

How to recognize signs of youth homelessness and resources to respond.


If you need more information or assistance finding housing, income and employment supports, call Alberta Supports at 1-877-677-9992 toll-free provincewide from 7:30 am – 8 pm Monday to Friday.

Homelessness is a complex problem. Each homeless individual or family has a unique set of circumstances that may have resulted in their situation. Some homeless individuals are confronting multiple challenges. This may include:

  • catastrophic events
  • loss of employment
  • family break-up
  • family violence
  • onset of mental and/or other debilitating illnesses
  • substance use by oneself or family members
  • physical, sexual or emotional abuse
  • involvement in the child welfare system.

Some groups may be more vulnerable to homelessness than others, including:

  • youth
  • the elderly
  • women
  • members of the LGBTQ2S+ community
  • Indigenous Peoples

What is Youth Homelessness?

Youth homelessness refers to the situation and experiences of young people between the ages of 13 and 24 who are living independently of parents and/or caregivers, but do not have the means or ability to acquire a stable, safe or consistent residence (Canadian Definition of Youth Homelessness). For example, they may be:

  • living on the street, in shelters or in places that are not intended or suitable for permanent residence; or
  • “couch-surfing” or temporarily living with others for short periods of time.

In such circumstances, they do not have a stable or consistent residence or source of income, nor do they necessarily have adequate access to the support networks necessary to foster a safe and nurturing transition into the responsibilities of adulthood (Homeless Hub, 2017).

It is important to note that some students might not categorize themselves as homeless despite living in non-traditional housing arrangements, oftentimes putting them in the “hidden” population of homelessness.

Recognizing Signs of Homelessness

There may be a variety of potential warning signs of homelessness. Signs of homelessness are not always obvious, and some of these signs could be symptoms of another problem or issue. It is always best to learn more about each student’s individual situation to provide assistance with the individual’s particular needs.


  • Backpack is very full
  • Clothes not consistently clean
  • Hygiene may be an issue
  • Food hoarding
  • Diminished personal grooming
  • Fatigued or may fall asleep during class
  • Medical and dental issues
  • Change in attendance pattern
  • Changes schools frequently
  • Inability to pay fees
  • Lack of participation in field trips or special events
  • Inability to contact parents or guardians
  • Consistently fail to complete homework
  • Unable to complete projects (no access to supplies)
  • Concern for safety of belongings or are very protective of the materials they do have in their possession
  • Request to use school phone and/or internet on a regular basis


  • Discussions of living location changes (couch surfing with different friends)
  • Stories or comments about living arrangements from student or family member are inconsistent

How to Respond

It is important that students experiencing homelessness have a safe and stable environment at school. School staff have a role in connecting students and their families with necessary programs, services and supports.

The following are some of the ways schools can support students experiencing homelessness or unstable housing that impedes their education:

  • Know your students. Be proactive in building healthy relationships with students.
  • Leverage relationships to create opportunities for informal conversation with the student or their family.
  • Ensure you know where to access resources such as food, shelter, clothes, or transportation. Let them know that you can help if/when they need it.
  • Raise awareness with families and students by:
    • letting them know about options and local supports available by placing flyers at open house/parent-teacher meetings
    • sending information with the student
    • putting articles in newsletters
    • posting information on class/school websites

Deliver practical support:

  • Consider providing bus tickets for transportation.
  • Help accessing school nutrition programs.
  • Help accessing laundry facilities.
  • Waive school fees.
  • Consider providing school supplies.
  • Help with accessing a mentor or other relational-based supports such as success coaches or a family-school liaison.
  • Provide resources and connection to community-based programs and agencies.

If you require more information, assistance or support, contact Alberta Supports. They can help provide you with information and access to relevant programs and community.