Student Well-Being What the Research Says

5 Ways Schools Can Find Homeless Students That They Might Overlook

By Sarah D. Sparks — January 29, 2024 7 min read
Blue conceptual image of five school kids walking away through school corridor, only one student in full color (isolated)
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Children, living either with their families or on their own, are the fastest-growing segment of the nation’s homeless populations, according to new federal housing data. And schools still struggle to find many of them.

A new study in the journal Educational Researcher suggests districts could find anywhere from a third to nearly five times as many homeless students if districts used the student data they already collect in new ways.

That’s crucial, as more than a quarter of homeless students dropped off schools’ radars during the pandemic, and experts warn a rising number of students are losing housing. Homeless students are more likely to be chronically absent and have lower grades and graduation rates than children with stable housing, and studies find identifying and supporting homeless students can help improve districts overall.

“Right now, education really needs to rise to the challenge,” said J.J. Cutuli, the lead researcher of the study and a senior research scientist at Nemours Children’s Health, a children’s medical group in the Delaware Valley. During the pandemic, he said, “Families just got harder and harder to reach as school was less and less available, and it was those families who were undocumented, those families who didn’t have a lease ...[who] continue to be hardest to reach.”

‘Tsunami’ of homelessness

The latest data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development finds that from 2022 to 2023, the number of homeless families with school-age children jumped 16 percent and the number of unaccompanied homeless children and youth rose 15 percent.

From 2022 to 2023, 34 states and the District of Columbia saw a jump in the number of homeless families with children. Many reported double-digit increases, including a 69 percent, or 1,490-student, rise in Colorado; a 2,900-student, or 29 percent, increase in Massachusetts; and a jump of 54 percent, or nearly 19,000 students, in New York.

That’s likely a conservative estimate, as HUD’s survey only counts on a single night, and includes only homeless people in shelters, transitional housing, or on the streets. The homeless education group SchoolHouse Connection estimates HUD’s point-in-time survey accounts for only 15 percent of homeless students identified by schools through the McKinney-Vento homeless education program.

McKinney-Vento’s broader definition of homelessness includes any children who don’t have a “fixed, regular, and adequate” home each night. This includes children in motels or temporarily doubled up with other families, or those living in abandoned buildings or those not suited for residences. Under that definition, public schools reported more than 1.2 million homeless students as of the 2021-22 school year, accounting for 2.4 percent of all public school students. That was a 10 percent jump from the prior year, but it was still 6 percent lower than the numbers reported before the pandemic, after two decades of child homelessness rising about 4 percent a year.

Experts say most schools have not yet found all of the homeless students who slipped through administrative cracks during the pandemic, nor have they accounted for a surge of new homeless students caused by rising poverty and expiring pandemic-era supports.

In 2020 and 2021, communities had significant federal and state pandemic-relief aid, including expanded child tax credits and housing supports to keep people in their homes, as well as moratoriums on evictions that at some points covered about 90 percent of renters in the country.

Those safeguards didn’t always work for families who were already homeless, as those living in informal housing arrangements had no eviction protections and many shelters lost capacity due to concerns over spreading infection. However, Cutuli predicts a “tsunami of homelessness” in the next six months as the last pandemic aid runs out and those barely holding onto housing lose protection.

“If you’re doubled up with somebody, you know that there’s a good chance that your host family can be evicted now. If host families lose their housing, this can ripple through low-income communities really quickly,” Cutuli said. “I think we’re seeing that, and unfortunately, I think it’s going to get worse and worse over the next six months.”

Deirdre Lynch Nicholson, the executive director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, also noted that many families struggling with housing instability or homelessness lost family members or suffered long-term health problems due to the pandemic, which have made them more vulnerable.

“I think that there are more people overall who are probably experiencing dire circumstances that lead to them being homeless ... but there are also more families who are realizing they are [McKinney-Vento] eligible and are coming forward to say they need help,” she said.

Finding hidden homelessness

In the Education Researcher study, the Camden City school district in New Jersey, with more than 4 percent of students who were homeless in 2018-19, partnered with Cutuli and the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers to find new ways to identify homeless students beyond parent and teacher reports. They used five years of school, city, and health data to model homelessness.

The study found several ways to use existing school and community data to build a better picture of homelessness in the district:

  • Create routines. The district administered housing surveys several times a year rather than just during fall enrollment, and also flagged any student who had been identified as homeless in a prior year who still lived at the same address.
  • Track families. When one child was identified as homeless, researchers flagged any siblings or other students at the same address in other classes or schools. The system also alerted researchers when two or more families listed the same address, meaning they might be doubled up.
  • Check temporary residences. The system flagged any student whose address was the known address of a homeless shelter, hotel, or motel. The district homeless liaison, Ebony Maddox, also checked in regularly with local hotels and motels for any new families who might need help.
  • Identify substandard housing. Using city surveys and records from the city’s department of public works, the researchers identified addresses that were boarded up or listed as structures with severe damage. Students who listed these addresses would be considered homeless.
  • Reach out to health-care providers. The study also flagged physician’s notes and diagnoses that referenced homelessness in health records for students or parents. While doctors could not share individual health records, they could provide data on the number of school-age patients or families noted as homeless, and the doctors could refer their patients to school homeless liaisons.

Using the available data, the researchers found significantly more students at risk of homelessness, poor attendance, and a high level of school mobility. Taken together, these approaches flagged more than 8,500 potentially homeless students that the district had not previously identified.

Nicholson said schools can do a better job of identifying and serving homeless students by asking more questions when problems arise at school. Under McKinney-Vento, schools must provide transportation, academic, and other supports to ensure homeless students have the same educational access that other students do.

“I think there’s a higher level of awareness by school administrators and school staff in 2024 than we’ve ever had, of the underlying reasons that students may experience challenges,” she said. “I’ve seen a higher level of empathy and willingness to look a bit more closely: Why is Maria falling asleep in class? Is it because she’s just staying up late? Or is it because Maria works a job because she’s the sole provider for her family? Why is Antonio eating and hiding food in class? Is it because he just wants to bring his snacks? Or is it because the only food he gets is at school?”

Outreach and openness from educators can also encourage more families to come forward, Nicholson said.

“There was previously this stigma and fear of being labeled McKinney-Vento-eligible [for homeless education services] because there was a thought that child welfare or the Department of Family and Children Services may get involved. But I think now people are willing to say, ‘I’m vulnerable. I need assistance. We’re experiencing homelessness,’” Nicholson said, “and schools are more willing to have an open mind and an open heart to the issues that students and families experience.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2024 edition of Education Week as 5 Ways Schools Can Find Homeless Students That They Might Overlook

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