McKinney-Vento Meets The Right To Adequate Housing

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The McKinney-Vento Act supports students who are homeless to continue their studies. How does that fit with the right to adequate housing?

An article in The Conversation about the McKinney-Vento Act set off a lengthy discussion at the editorial table of does McKinney-Vento connect with the right to adequate housing and if so, how? The questions are worthwhile, because they help in connecting the seemingly remote business of the United Nations to housing and homelessness on our doorstep.

First, a brief introduction to the McKinney-Vento Act. It is a United States law, which prescribes assistance that is to be provided to students who experience homelessness. It is about ensuring that students who experience homelessness can continue their education with minimal disruption.

The US Constitution is silent on the issue of the right to adequate housing. At the same time, the provisions in the McKinney-Vento Act that support homeless students are a good fit with two of the United Nations’ documents about the right to adequate housing:

Here are three ways the US’s McKinney-Vento Act and the UN’s right to adequate housing fit together:

    • The McKinney-Vento Act supports students to continue their education. Continuing education fits with one of seven conditions in the UN’s guidance on the right to adequate housing that go along with four walls and a roof1. The condition of Location specifically includes being connected with schools. The McKinney-Vento Act says that students will be assisted to attend school and to continue at the school they were attending when they became homeless. Even though they are homeless, the McKinney Vento Act helps to maintain the condition of location, which is part of the right to adequate housing.
    • The level of education an individual achieves is highly correlated with their housing stability as an adult. The McKinney-Vento Act supports students who are homeless to improve their long term chances at housing stability as adults. The United Nations directs governments to adopt legislative measures that support residents to realize their rights2. The McKinney-Vento Act is an example of the kind of legislation the UN recommends.
    • The United Nations also anticipates that it will take time for all residents to realize the right to housing. The McKinney-Vento Act provides immediate support to homeless students, which will contribute to their housing stability as adults. This fits with a strategy of ending homelessness over time.

More on this subject could be said, but the purpose here is to demonstrate that the UN’s documents aren’t so remote from the situation in our local communities as we might first think.

The McKinney-Vento Act is an example of the way that a country is moving to realize the right to adequate housing. Every country’s process will be unique. The UN’s documents should be considered as relevant resources for all countries.

As well, country level experience can tell us a lot about rolling out the right to adequate housing. Advocates in the United States have offered evidence that McKinney-Vento support is not reaching all of the students who are eligible. Researchers in Detroit surveyed parents who were homeless to find out how McKinney-Vento was working. Here’s what parents reported:

    • Some were not aware of the McKinney-Vento Act or its supports.
    • Some assumed they did not qualify for the supports to homeless students because they were working and had temporary indoor shelter (with friends or family).
    • Some were reluctant to speak with their children’s teachers.
    • Some had spoken to teachers, but no help had been forthcoming.

The researchers also note that the Detroit school board has recently stepped up its game in identifying and getting support to students who are homeless and attending school. Read more about this research at Detroit Peer: Detroit Schools Severely Under-Identify Students Experiencing Homelessness and Housing Instability

And finally, we’ll return to the article in The Conversation that kicked off this post. The author, Stacey Havlik, writes that Detroit is unlikely to be the only city where homeless students are going to school without any support from McKinney-Vento.  Havlik calls on school boards in other communities to follow Detroit’s lead and do a better job of counting students who are homeless and supporting them.

Havlik also has tips for parents who are homeless and have school aged children. Her tips would also be useful for friends and advocates of homeless parents, who already have a lot on their plates. Read more in The Conversation: Philadelphia undercounts students who are homeless – here’s what parents need to know to advocate for their child


  1. The seven conditions are discussed starting at the bottom of page 3 in Fact Sheet 21
  2. This is described in Section 2 of the Covenant