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Post-pandemic, homeless students can be hard to find

Experts believe K-12 student homelessness grew during pandemic, despite some survey results suggesting a decline


A pre-K student at a school for families experiencing homelessness in Oklahoma City Associated Press/Photo by Sue Ogrocki, file

Post-pandemic, homeless students can be hard to find

Barbara Duffield graduated from the University of Michigan in 1990 with a degree in political science and French. She was interning at Foreign Policy magazine when a copy editor invited her along for volunteer tutoring of homeless children in Washington, D.C.

For Duffield, there would be no going back: “I did do work on housing policy, income policy, but education was always my passion—and it really stems from that experience of tutoring kids.”

According to the National School Boards Association, rates of homelessness among K-12 students has more than doubled since 2008, with almost 1.4 million students identified as homeless in 2018-2019. Data on homelessness during the pandemic showed a seeming decline at first glance: In early November, Advocates for Children of New York, an organization advocating for the educational needs of low-income families, reported that more than 100,000 New York City students experienced homelessness during the 2020-2021 school year, a 9 percent decrease from the previous year.

But experts say those lower numbers may not be accurate. As schools were closed for virtual learning, many districts may have under-identified school-aged children who were living without permanent housing. Advocacy group SchoolHouse Connection said in a report released in November 2020 that more than 400,000 homeless K-12 students may not have been identified as such by their districts in fall 2020.

“There’s been a slight dip of families that have entered shelter as a result of the pandemic,” said Anasofia Trelles of Advocates for Children of New York. But she said the organization believes that was most likely not due to families finding permanent housing but due to “fear of going into shelter and potentially catching the virus.”

Duffield served in leadership for the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth before co-founding the Washington, D.C.-based SchoolHouse Connection in 2016, where she is now executive director. When polled, school liaisons told SchoolHouse Connection that the top reason they had lower numbers of homeless students was because they couldn’t find them. When a school’s typical means of identifying homeless students—bus reroutes, casual conversations, address changes—are replaced by virtual schooling, homeless students can be hard to find, said Duffield.

“The very nature of homelessness is hidden,” she said. “There’s fear, and stigma, a lot of shame that goes with it, so it’s not a population that readily comes forth.”

In 2017, a Voices of Youth Count and Chapin Hall study found that young adults without a high-school diploma or GED were 346 percent more likely to be homeless, a risk factor that far outweighed other factors such as lower income or unmarried parenting. The graduation rate for homeless youth was only 67.7 percent in the 2018-2019 school year, compared with 85.8 percent among all students.

Despite this importance of education for homeless youth, there are many challenges that can keep them from achieving it. “Homelessness comes with trauma,” Duffield said. “It’s typically not just not having your home. There may be violence involved, and maybe other issues going on. … All of that affects a child’s ability to focus and learn.”

Homeless youth are at a greater risk for absenteeism. In New York City during the 2016-2017 school year, 36 percent of homeless students were considered chronically absent, missing at least three weeks of school throughout the year. Thirteen percent of homeless students missed at least 40 school days.

Adequate transportation can also be a hurdle for students. While the McKinney-Vento Act mandates that homeless children can stay in the school they attended before becoming homeless, Trelles said that in New York City, no system exists to track which schools students attend as their families apply for space in a shelter. Families may be assigned to a shelter a long distance from their children’s school.

Duffield said preliminary results from her organization’s latest survey of school liaisons suggested student homelessness is higher now than before the pandemic. According to Duffield, only about a quarter of districts received funding specifically to help homeless students before the pandemic, but she believes that funding provided in the American Rescue Plan will allow more districts to identify and assist students. 

For many homeless students, school is “an oasis of stability,” Duffield noted. “But again, if we don’t have this, if we don’t know who’s experiencing homelessness, then that piece isn’t there.”


Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute. She lives with her family in Wichita, Kan.

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