Career Development for Students Experiencing Homelessness

By Carrie Sanders and Stacey Havlik

[Eds. Note - this article originally appeared in the web magazine in Dec. 2015. Because of its significance to today's readers (particularly those attending the NCDA Global Career Development Conference), we are re-running it now.]

Experiencing Homelessness
Homelessness is a unique circumstance that affects students across the school system. Although, homelessness is often thought of as only those individuals living in shelters or on the street, the federal definition also encompasses those who are doubled-up with others families, living in hotels or motels, awaiting foster care placement, living in public spaces, or staying in other accommodations that are not suitable for humans (United States Department of Education, 2004). Students without permanent housing face needs that students with consistent housing may not, particularly when it comes to their education (Havlik, Brady, & Gavin, 2014).

It is difficult enough to be a child or adolescent going through normal developmental changes while trying to keep up with classes, but adding the complication of homelessness creates barriers to achieving educational success. Students experiencing homelessness face heightened stress due to their homeless circumstances. This may present as behavioral or emotional concerns in schools. Due to their transience, students may also find it difficult to make friends or build relationships with teachers and other school professionals. Additionally, students’ frequent moves between schools can also make it challenging to keep up with coursework, or ensure they are placed in the appropriate courses.

Unfortunately, the number of families experiencing homelessness in cities across the country is growing (United States Conference of Mayors, 2013). This means that school counselors and other educators are called upon to support students who are facing a loss of housing in obtaining educational success. Due to the unique challenges they face, students experiencing homelessness may need additional support to help them achieve the ultimate goal of post-secondary success.

College and Career Readiness Related to Homelessness
Considering the importance of college and career readiness (Anctil, Smith, Schenck, & Dahir, 2012), school counselors must identify how to incorporate career counseling to equip students who are experiencing homelessness with the tools they need to be successful (ASCA, 2012). Addressing career preparation with students experiencing homelessness may be different than the process with students who have consistent housing. This includes providing information about post-secondary options, informing students and their families about pathways to achieve their college and career goals, and offering support and guidance as students seek to identify and achieve their career aspirations.

Students experiencing homelessness have unique issues related to career and college planning. For instance, they may have difficulty accessing information about college, since many of the resources available for college and career planning require a computer or mobile device with an Internet connection. Depending on the living situation, limited accessibility to technology is a barrier to having the opportunity to explore the same information easily accessed by their peers. In addition, students may not know where to gather relevant information to prepare them for success. Counselors can provide students specific information regarding career exploration, post-secondary options and the pathways to achieve their desired outcomes. This information can be shared at all levels of education through individual, group, or classroom meetings as well as through the distribution of printed materials to empower students who might otherwise be uninformed (ASCA, 2012).

Providing resources in print allows for information to be accessible when families are transient and without an Internet connection. In addition, because students experiencing homelessness are often transient, offering withdrawing students information about who to contact for guidance and information will keep them connected to resources. Since support and guidance throughout the post-secondary planning process is imperative, it is important to consider the community that surrounds the student and offer avenues to obtain support and guidance throughout the process.

Below, we offer practical suggestions at each level for school counselors and educators to help facilitate the career development process for students experiencing homelessness. In order to best support students’ development, the process should begin in elementary school:

Elementary School:

  • Promote parent (and other adult) involvement related to interest and career development;
  • Encourage students to explore their interests, skills, and abilities (i.e., What are their gifts and talents? What do they like to do?);
  • Expose students to different career clusters;
  • Invite speakers to talk about different jobs and the skills needed;
  • Organize a career day and connect academic subjects to the world of work, especially in the community at-large.

Middle School:

  • Continue to guide students in identifying and developing their strengths and interests;
  • Draw connections between what they are learning now to their future by encouraging teachers to integrate class discussions;
  • Prepare students to meet their high school aspirations by offering guidance to select appropriate courses;
  • Support short and long-term planning for students by providing them a framework for their post-secondary options; have these plans printed on paper for them to keep;
  • Design and implement a mentorship program for high school students to work with middle school students.

High School:

  • Equip students with tools to prepare them for life after high school and teach them how to reach out for help;
  • Introduce students to a variety of colleges (e.g., schedule college representatives in the high school or have the student go out to college visits);
  • Visit shelters to provide post-secondary information and communicate with students and families;
  • Provide students and families information about the process of seeking financial aid (e.g., FAFSA);
  • Offer family education sessions early in high school (be creative with how and where you present the information);
  • Support the online application process by having computers available for students.

Across Educational Levels:

  • Engage students in the career exploration, information seeking, and planning processes;
  • Promote parent or other adult involvement in career development and post-secondary planning;
  • Encourage teachers to connect subject-area content to practical application in the world of work.

American School Counseling Association. (2012). The American School Counselor Association national model: A framework for school counseling programs (3rd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Author.

Anctil, T., Smith, C., Schenck, P., & Dahir, C. (2012). Professional school counselors’ career development practices and continuing education needs. The Career Development Quarterly, 60(2), 109-121.

Gerwirtz, A., Hart-Shegos, E., & Medhanie, A. (2008). Psychosocial status of homeless children and youth in family supportive housing. American Behavioral Scientist, 51(6), 810-823.

Havlik, S., Brady, J., & Gavin, K. (2014). Exploring the needs of students experiencing homelessness from  school counselors’ perspectives. Journal of School Counseling, 12(20). Retrieved from http://jsc.montana.edu/articles/v12n20.pdf

United State Conference of Mayors. (2013). Hunger and homelessness survey: A state report on hunger and  homelessness in America’s cities. A 25-city survey. Retrieved from http://www.usmayors.org/pressreleases/uploads/2013/1210-report-HH.pdf

United States Department of Education (2004). McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Improvements Act of 2001. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/esea02/pg116.html#sec1031


Carrie SandersCarrie Sanders, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Counseling and Development in the College of Education at Winthrop University. She can be contacted by e-mail at sandersc@winthrop.edu



Stacey HavlikStacey Havlik, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Education and Counseling at Villanova University. She can be contacted by e-mail at stacey.havlik@villanova.edu

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Tonya W.   on Monday 05/16/2016 at 10:43 AM

Excellent article, Carrie and Stacey! The career day idea for elementary students is a wonderful idea.

Pearl Polestico   on Friday 07/08/2016 at 03:20 AM

What an interesting article you have presented Carrie & Stacey! It inspires the career counselors to look into the educational needs and work aspirations of those who are homeless in the communities.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.