The Empty Lunchbox


The experience of primary schools with students who are homeless

Martin, R. (2014), The empty lunchbox: the experience of primary schools with students who are homeless, Hanover Welfare Services, Melbourne.

This exploratory study is the first time that the point of view of primary schools and their day-to-day experiences of dealing with student homelessness have been investigated. The findings make an important contribution to the broader evidence base on the detrimental impact of homelessness on children’s education. Engagement and wellbeing are fundamental to learning. Given that homelessness can interfere with school engagement and wellbeing, it poses a major obstacle to learning.

The overall objectives of the project were to:

  • Explore how schools currently identify and work with primary students who are homeless;
  • Explore how schools respond and support students and what difficulties or barriers are encountered; and
  • Identify the most effective ways to support the learning of students who are homeless.



Hanover undertook a study (2012-2013) that asked Victorian public primary schools how they became aware of and responded to student homelessness; what worked in practice and what needed to be improved.

Who participated in the study?

A total of 932 Victorian public primary schools contacted about the study:

  • 139 schools completed online survey (stage 1),
  • 45 reported experience with students who were homeless,
  • 21 (with experience of student homelessness) completed telephone interview (stage 2).

Key findings

1. Detrimental impact on young students – disrupted learning

Students’ capacity to engage in learning and education was greatly affected by homelessness. Generally, day-to-day school life was not easy to engage in; while in some cases, school was a needed haven from the chaos and disruption of homelessness.

2. Diversity in school experiences with student homelessness – some schools quasi welfare agencies

Concentration of disadvantage in small number of schools was major issue – schools most affected by homelessness and disadvantage generally struggled. Huge commitment to student education and wellbeing, with comprehensive processes in place.

3. How to support schools and strengthen links to broader community, especially service sector

Despite extraordinary commitment, schools not adequately resourced to address the impact of homelessness on student learning and educational development and to ensure the welfare needs of students were being addressed.


  • The Empty Lunchbox: The Experience of primary schools with students who are homeless Full report

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