The National Center for Homeless Education (the U.S. Department of Education’s technical assistance center) recently released a three-year summary of school data on children and youth experiencing homelessness, including the 2018-2019 school year (the most recent school year for which it has compiled data).

The data paints a picture of homelessness in our nation’s public schools in the year prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, providing important baseline data and findings that should inform our actions now, as schools move toward reopening and recovery. 

We describe six of the most salient findings, and their relevance to the pandemic response and recovery, below.

1. Despite a slight drop from the previous year, the 2018-2019 data reflects a long-term upward trend in the number of children and youth experiencing homelessness. This stands in sharp contrast to the significant declines in the numbers of students experiencing homelessness who have been identified since the start of  the pandemic.

Public schools reported 1,387,573 students experiencing homelessness in the 2018-19 school year. While this number is down from the 1.5 million students experiencing homelessness reported the previous school year (a record high, in part due to several large hurricanes that year), it is still 3 percent higher than the 2016-2017 school year, and represents a 104% increase since the 2006-2007 school year.

This long-term upward trend is significant because it contrasts sharply with what schools are reporting now: large drops in the numbers of identified students experiencing homelessness, primarily due to the challenges of identification during distance learning. Survey data indicate a 28% decrease in the number of identified homeless students in the fall of 2020 compared to the fall of 2019, which translates to an estimated 420,000 fewer children and youth experiencing homelessness who have been identified and enrolled by schools so far this school year.  When students are not identified, they miss out on critical educational protections and services that can stabilize their education and their lives.

Looking forward, public schools must pay close attention to outreach and identification efforts, support these efforts with American Rescue Plan funds, and use 2018-2019 data as a rough baseline, taking into account 1) likely increases in family and youth homelessness due to the economic impact of the pandemic; and 2) evidence of prior under-identification from other data sources. For example, analysis of the Centers for Disease Control’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey data indicates that 5.8% of high school students experienced homelessness at some point in the 2018-2019 school year. In contrast, public schools reported only 2.27% of their high school students as experiencing homelessness. In other words, prior to the pandemic, public schools have been identifying significantly less than half of the high school students experiencing homelessness.

2. The rate of homelessness grew faster for some groups of students than others, raising concerns about growing disparities for students who have faced additional challenges and barriers during the pandemic.

The newly released public school data show that while the overall homeless student population increased by 2% over the three years covered in the report (2016-17 to 2018-19), numbers of students experiencing homelessness grew faster for: 

  • Children and youth who have disabilities: 8% increase 
  • Unaccompanied youth (youth experiencing homelessness on their own) : 6% increase 
  • Migratory students and English learners: 5% increase 

Students with disabilities and students who are English learners are disproportionately represented among students experiencing homelessness. According to NCHE’s report, the number of children with disabilities, as defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), increased to 19% of all McKinney-Vento students in 2018-2019. In contrast, the total number of public school students with identified disabilities under IDEA has remained stable at 14% of the overall student population. And while English learners comprise 16% of the students experiencing homelessness, they make up only 10% of the total student population. Students with disabilities and students who are English learners have been significantly impacted by the pandemic and school closures, and they face increased barriers to educational access and participation. Schools must increase collaboration between McKinney-Vento school district liaisons, special education departments, and Title III programs for English learners in order to ensure identification, engagement, and participation.

It should be noted that while the U.S. Department of Education (ED) does not currently require school districts to collect and submit data on the race and ethnicity of students experiencing homelessness, ED will do so starting in the 2020-2021 school year. States that currently disaggregate their homeless student data by race and ethnicity show pronounced racial disparities. Similarly, SchoolHouse Connection’s analysis of the 2019 YRBS data found that students of color are disproportionately likely to experience homelessness. The pandemic’s heavy toll on Black, Hispanic, and Native American communities heightens the need for schools and communities to take action to improve identification and outcomes for students of color experiencing homelessness. 

3. Only 12 percent of children and youth experiencing homelessness were staying in a shelter when they were first identified as homeless by public schools in 2018-2019. The majority — 77% — were staying with other people in fluid, hidden arrangements. These situations make students experiencing homelessness more difficult to identify, pose particular safety risks (especially in the pandemic), and often render families and youth ineligible for housing and homelessness assistance.

According to the federal data, only 12 percent of children and youth experiencing homelessness were staying in a shelter when they were first identified as homeless by public schools. Seven percent were staying in motels, and only four percent were unsheltered. The vast majority — 77% — of all students experiencing homelessness were staying with others due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason. Unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness were even more likely to stay with other people, and less likely to stay in a motel: 84% were staying with others, while less than 2% were in motels.

During the pandemic, families and youth experiencing homelessness are even less likely to be staying in shelter, because of the reduction in shelter beds due to social distancing requirements, and the fear of congregate shelter. Instead, they stay in crowded, unstable situations that pose high risks for COVID-19 infection and transmission. They cannot quarantine or practice social distancing. Because they are not leaseholders, they are not protected by eviction moratoria, nor are they eligible for COVID-19 rental assistance. While they meet the definition of homelessness used by public schools, Head Start, Child Care, and other federal programs, they are not considered homeless by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This means they are not prioritized or eligible for HUD homeless assistance, and it remains to be seen whether HUD will adequately serve them with its ARP funding. Yet these families and youth are at the mercy of others, extremely vulnerable to harm, and very challenging to identify. Schools must redouble efforts to screen all families and youth for homelessness, using sensitivity and discretion, and advocate locally for resources to be directed to those who meet the education definition of homelessness.

4. While homelessness was distributed evenly among grade levels in 2018-2019, only 3% of children experiencing homelessness were identified in the three to five year-old age group, raising concerns about lack of access to preschool programs — another dynamic that has likely worsened due to the pandemic.

The recently released federal data show that homelessness is experienced nearly evenly across grade levels: 8%  in each grade from Kindergarten through Grade 5; 7% in each of Grades 6 through 9, and Grade 12; and 6% of students experiencing homelessness in Grades 10 and in 11.

Of particular concern is that only 3% of enrolled children identified as experiencing homelessness were between three and five years old. This is striking because other data shows that a far greater proportion of children experiencing homelessness are young: for example, half of all children in federally-funded shelters are under the age of six, and the U.S Department of Education estimates that 1 in 16 children under the age of 6 (approximately 6%) experiences homelessness.  

The reported low percentage of young children experiencing homelessness enrolled in local educational agencies is likely a consequence of several factors: the lack of public preschool programs administered by local educational agencies (and therefore lack of capacity at LEAs to serve all young children experiencing homelessness), and the general lack of identification and continued barriers to enrollment and attendance. The US Department of Education, for example, reported that on average only 9% of children experiencing homelessness are enrolled in Head Start, Early Head Start, or programs funded by McKinney-Vento subgrants. Given the drop in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten enrollment for all children in the pandemic, as well as the additional barriers faced by children experiencing homelessness, school district homeless liaisons, homeless service providers, and early childhood programs should be proactive in asking families if they have younger children, letting families know about available preschool programs, assisting with enrollment, providing transportation, and otherwise removing barriers. 

5. Less than 1 in 4 local educational agencies received direct subgrant funding from the McKinney-Vento Act’s Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) Program in 2018-2019. In order to help schools identify and support all students experiencing homelessness during the pandemic, Congress must significantly increase FY2022 funding for the EHCY program.

The McKinney-Vento Act’s EHCY program is the only federal education program that removes barriers to school identification, enrollment, attendance, and success that are caused by homelessness. These barriers include being unable to meet enrollment requirements; high mobility resulting in lack of continuity and absenteeism; lack of transportation; lack of supplies; poor health, fatigue, and hunger; and emotional crisis/mental health issues. The number of school districts that received subgrants under the EHCY program saw little change in the 2018-2019 school year; 4,400 school districts, or 23%, received either an award as a single school district, or an award as part of a regional consortium. Lack of funding limits the ability of schools to identify children and youth experiencing homelessness, ensure their access to school, and connect them to community resources. Congress last appropriated $105 million for the EHCY program in Fiscal Year 2021. Given the impact of the pandemic, and research that shows that not completing high school is the greatest single risk factor for experiencing homelessness as a young person, Congress should significantly increase funding for this critical program.

6. Students experiencing homelessness scored lower than economically disadvantaged students on statewide assessments by approximately eight to nine percentage points in the 2018-2019 school year, and graduated at lower rates than economically disadvantaged students. The pandemic creates the potential for even greater setbacks.

According to the NCHE report, students experiencing homelessness scored lower than economically disadvantaged students on statewide assessments by approximately eight to nine percentage points in the 2018-2019 school year, demonstrating that homelessness has a harmful impact on academic achievement that is greater than poverty alone.  Approximately 30% of students experiencing homelessness achieved academic proficiency in reading/language arts, 25% achieved academic proficiency in mathematics, and 28% achieved proficiency in science. State graduation rates for students who graduated within four years ranged from 49% to 86% of students experiencing homelessness, and in nearly every state, were significantly below economically disadvantaged students. Given that  lack of a high school degree or GED is the single greatest risk factor for homelessness as a young person, these data portend continued and even heightened adult homelessness for years to come.

However, there is nothing inevitable about academic setbacks for students experiencing homelessness. With the right support and services, these students can and do succeed — but barriers must be removed so that they can enroll and participate in a wide range of interventions, including summer programs, accelerated learning, credit recovery, and other activities designed to help students regain their footing during and after the pandemic. School districts should prioritize students experiencing homelessness for in-person learning, if desired by the student and/or parent; provide them with transportation to any in-person learning opportunities at school buildings and/or in the community; and consider offering teachers extra paid hours to provide individual academic support to students experiencing homelessness, do weekly check-ins by text or other platforms outside of class, and provide weekly attendance certificates and other incentives to promote attendance.

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