Federal education data released today by the National Center for Homeless Education (the U.S. Department of Education’s technical assistance center) show that public schools identified 1.5 million children and youth experiencing homelessness in the 2017-2018 school year – an 11% increase over the previous school year and the highest number ever recorded nationally.
“The record number of children and youth experiencing homelessness nationwide is alarming,” said Barbara Duffield, Executive Director of SchoolHouse Connection. “But for many of these children and youth, public schools are their best—and often only—source of support. Schools exist in all communities, regardless of whether or not there are enough shelter beds; they are required to identify, enroll, and serve homeless children and youth; they use a definition of homelessness that captures the reality of homelessness for youth and families; and they provide the tools children and youth need to succeed.”
Under federal early care, child nutrition, and education law, children and youth are considered homeless if they are staying in shelters, cars, motels, or with other people temporarily due to lack of alternatives. While students experiencing homelessness move frequently between living situations in the course of a school year, schools are required to keep data only on where students are located when they are first identified as homeless. According to the 2017-2018 school year data:
- The number of homeless students in unsheltered situations (cars, parks, streets, etc.) more than doubled between 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 (104% increase).
- The number of homeless students staying in emergency shelters or transitional housing decreased by 2%.
- The number of homeless students staying in motels increased by 17%.
- The number staying with other people temporarily due to lack of alternatives increased by 9%.
The federal data also highlight the significant barriers to academic success faced by students experiencing homelessness. Four-year on-time state graduation rates for homeless students ranged from 44%-87%, while five-year on-time state graduation rates ranged from 41%-83%. Approximately 29 percent of students experiencing homelessness achieved academic proficiency in reading (language arts), 24 percent achieved proficiency in mathematics, and 26 percent achieved proficiency in science. Graduation and proficiency rates for homeless students are significantly below economically disadvantaged students, demonstrating the negative impact of homelessness on academic achievement over and above poverty. Research shows that not completing high school is the greatest single risk factor for experiencing homelessness as a young person, making education a critical intervention.
“For many of these children and youth, public schools are their best—and often only—source of support. Schools exist in all communities, regardless of whether or not there are enough shelter beds; they are required to identify, enroll, and serve homeless children and youth; they use a definition of homelessness that captures the reality of homelessness for youth and families; and they provide the tools children and youth need to succeed.”
“The alarming graduation rate gaps between students experiencing homelessness and their stably-housed peers are unacceptable,” said John Bridgeland, Founder & CEO of Civic, an organization that develops campaigns and public policies in various fields, including education. “We have learned how to effectively identify students experiencing homelessness and get them the supports they need to stay on track in school. Now is the time to apply this knowledge to redouble our efforts in ensuring all students have the same opportunity to graduate from high school and succeed in college, work and life.”
Despite the existence of effective strategies for identifying students who experience homelessness, under-identification continues to be a serious problem. For example, a November 2019 audit from the State of California found that California schools undercounted their homeless students by at least 37 percent in 2017-18. When students experiencing homelessness are not appropriately identified, they miss out on transportation, counseling, connections to social services, academic supports, and other benefits they are entitled to under state and federal law.
“As high as these numbers are, our identification efforts still need work before they accurately reflect how many children and youth—including young children under the age of six—experience homelessness,” said Duffield. “Schools and communities need to know who is experiencing homelessness in order to help them succeed – and policymakers at all levels must prioritize action to support these invisible and often over-looked students.”
1. Increase funding for the McKinney-Vento Act’s Education for Homeless Children and Youth program, which provides essential resources to state and local educational agencies to support homeless students;
2. Pass the bipartisan Homeless Children and Youth Act (H.R. 2001), which aligns federal definitions of homelessness to include some of the most vulnerable children and youth, and allows communities to use federal funds to meet local needs; and
3. Pass legislation to prevent and address family and youth homelessness through housing and services, such as the Affordable Housing for Educational Achievement Demonstration (AHEAD) Act (S. 3011), the Family Stability and Opportunity Vouchers (S. 3083), the Eviction Crisis Act (S. 3030), and the Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act (H.R.5191/S.2916).
Meanwhile, states and school districts can take immediate action to:
1. Ensure appropriate levels of staffing and training on child and youth homelessness
2. Ensure that school districts reserve adequate amounts of Title I Part A funding to serve homeless children and youth;
3. Build partnerships with housing and homeless agencies, early childhood programs, and other community organizations to meet the comprehensive needs of children, youth, and families experiencing homelessness; and
4. Pass state legislation that removes barriers to early childhood and high school graduation and improves access to postsecondary opportunities.