In 1988, about 1% of U.S. families were experiencing homelessness. Today, that number has grown to 34%. Since 2004, the number of students experiencing homelessness has risen by 63%. In a 2022 report from The National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE), it was reported that 1,280,886 students experienced homelessness during the 2019-2020 school year, which represented 2.5% of all students enrolled in public schools.
These are shocking numbers. Yet a parent with young children is not what usually comes to mind when we discuss “the homeless.” Many of these families remain hidden — and uncounted — because when the Department of Housing and Urban Development sets out to quantify homelessness, it does so by scouring the city streets and homeless shelters for just one night in January.
Parents experiencing homelessness, however, will do anything to ensure their children aren’t sleeping outdoors in the dead of winter. Most of these families are instead doubled up on the floors and sofas of relatives or friends. When families experiencing homelessness are hidden in plain sight, the hardships and dangers facing too many of our students are also obscured.
That is why, as school leaders, it must be our mission to bring these children out of the shadows. Only then can we drive thoughtful, holistic change.
Who — and Where — Are the Children Experiencing Homelessness?
Any effective response to this crisis must begin with clarity about what it means to be a child facing housing insecurity. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (MKV) defines a student experiencing homelessness as one who lacks fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.
You’ll note the definition does not mention being unsheltered, which is why scanning the streets for one night in January is yielding an inaccurate view of the homeless population. In fact, 78% of students identified as homeless, in a 2022 report from NCHE, were living doubled up with others. Parents staying in the homes of family members or friends don’t have the security of keys and leases. As a result, their kids know that every few weeks, they’ll outlive their welcome and will have to move on.
Obviously, housing insecurity has a highly negative impact on children – on their education, health, sense of safety, and overall development. Children experiencing homelessness are at greater risk of suffering from serious health, emotional and behavioral issues and they are more likely to experience separations from their families.
The educational impacts of homelessness and forced mobility are especially severe and long-lasting. Research has found that even one non-promotional school move both reduced elementary school achievement in reading and math and increased high school dropout rates. Barely half of students who experienced homelessness during high school graduated on time. And because educational attainment impacts lifetime earnings, these students can continue to face long-term disadvantages.
Resources Do Exist to Drive Significant Change
The good news is that there are resources available for schools to help families and students experiencing homelessness. Title 1 continues to be the largest federal funding program for students experiencing housing insecurity and it can be used to provide many services.
For example, Title 1 funds can be used to provide alternative transportation solutions to help keep students in their school of origin. This stability is hugely impactful: research has found that students experiencing homelessness who are able to avoid chronic absenteeism or having to transfer schools mid-year have a graduation rate of 90%. I’ve seen how transformative a reliable ride to school can be with an alternative transportation service like EverDriven. This service helps support our traditional yellow bus operations and enables us to meet the ever-evolving transportation needs of our students.
The American Rescue Plan Act (ARP) also brought an influx of funding for students experiencing homelessness. It created a historic opportunity to strengthen services for vulnerable students, and led to the lowest child poverty rate in American history. Although ARP is scheduled to sunset this year, the additional funds allowed many schools to pilot innovative programs that can be continued into the future by tapping into pre-existing programs like Title I.
5 Steps That Make a Difference
There are also direct actions that school leaders can take to meaningfully improve the lives of students experiencing homelessness, including:
If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that school leaders can be extraordinarily nimble and resourceful when dealing with a crisis like Covid. Going forward, we need to apply that same urgency and creativity to the crisis of homelessness. We cannot allow our students experiencing homelessness to remain hidden. As daunting as the challenges are, there are important resources that school leaders can use to promote positive changes in the lives of these students. The question now is, will we?
Sara Sims has been working as a Special Populations Coordinator at Phoenix Elementary School District for eight years. Phoenix Elementary School District is part of the Education industry, and located in Arizona.