Obtaining a high school education is an expectation in Canadian society, established by way of both societal norms and governmental policy. In most provinces, youth are required to be enrolled in school until at least the age of 16. Beyond high school, the expansion of the ‘knowledge economy’ has resulted in a push for post-secondary education as the pathway to gainful employment.

Individuals who lack formal education are at a higher risk for unemployment or underemployment than their educated counterparts.  Barriers are often created in obtaining employment, or even accessing services, for those with low levels of literacy or who speak English/French as a second language. For many people (especially youth) their homelessness caused them to leave the educational system. Obtaining a GED is a potential option for a homeless individual who doesn’t have a high school diploma but challenges of preparing for it, having the needed identification and being able to afford the test present barriers to achievement.

Homeless youth in particular are an overly vulnerable population with respect to the acquisition of formal education. Many homeless youth struggle to gain continuous access to education, and most do not have a high school diploma. For instance, in Ottawa and Toronto, “between 63% and 90% of homeless youth have not graduated from high school despite being of age to have done so” (Canada Mortgage and Housing Association, 2001). Many factors contribute to their absence from formal schooling including: interruptions to regular attendance as a result of instable housing, practical issues related to shelter life, including proximity to schools and health issues including (but not limited to) stress. Other homeless youth are unable to remain in school for financial reasons, as monetary income takes precedence over school attendance.

Educational challenges also exist for children in families experiencing homelessness.  Sometimes families are required to move to family shelters or motels that are a great distance from their home school. This results in a change of schools or intensive efforts on behalf of the family to travel back and forth to the child’s old school.

Meeting the educational needs of people who experience homelessness is a challenge that must be addressed by researchers, policy makers and service providers.