May 20, 2020
"The Dean" gets a lot of questions about Independent Student status, usually from students like you who are truly on their own. However, being "Independent" for financial-aid purposes is a whole other story, and most colleges stick to the letter of the law.
You can read more about the guidelines that determine Independent status here: http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/help/fftoc03k.htm
As you will see, if your parents are still living, you are under age 24, and you are not married or a parent yourself, in foster care, a veteran, or a ward of the court (i.e., your parents' parental rights have been terminated, due to abuse or other concerns), then you will not qualify as Independent.
However, if your parents' household income is low, then you will probably qualify for significant financial aid, even though they will be expected to help you fill out your FAFSA forms and to contribute to your college costs, if they are able.
It's also possible (although, unfortunately, improbable) that you can convince financial aid officers at your prospective colleges to determine that you are Independent, even though you don't meet the official criteria. To do so, I suggest that you gather letters from several adults that confirm what you have told us about your situation. One such letter could come from your relative-landlord. Others should come from those in a position of some "authority"--e.g., a high school guidance counselor or principal, a social worker, a minister or other member of the clergy, etc. An employer could write on your behalf as well
Most college financial aid officials do have some latitude when it comes to granting Independent status. And, even if you don't manage to get such status, there may be financial aid officers who will be sympathetic to your plight and will help you to get extra aid, where it's available. When you contact the college officials, be as specific about your family circumstances as you can be. Why are you no longer living at home? For instance, was there abuse of any kind (physical, sexual, verbal)? Is someone in the home a substance abuser? Do you have a step-parent who doesn't want you around? etc. Lots of high school and college students claim that they simply can't get along with their parents. But if you can provide compelling reasons to explain why your home life was especially difficult for you, this might work in your favor.
Schedule the appointment(s) in advance. Try to go in person, rather than make a phone appointment, if this is possible. Once you are there, act appreciative for any help you have received so far, even if it's minimal. Be grateful--not entitled--as you ask for more.
You have a challenging road ahead, but it sounds like you are prepared to navigate it, however bumpy it becomes. Best of luck to you. Be persistent!