Special Report
Equity & Diversity Reported Essay

Our Student Homeless Numbers Are Staggering. Schools Can Be a Bridge to a Solution

Educators can’t solve the problem alone
By Andrew Ujifusa — September 14, 2021 5 min read
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This story is part of a special project called Big Ideas in which EdWeek reporters ask hard questions about K-12 education’s biggest challenges and offer insights based on their extensive coverage and expertise.

Levi Bohanan was homeless as a high school senior. Without a parent or guardian looking after him, he wasn’t sure he would graduate, let alone go on to college. But then school staff connected him to resources that would support him, they told him about Pell Grants, and that assistance changed his life. 

“None of that can happen absent trust,” said Bohanan, who is now a special assistant at the U.S. Department of Education. “None of that can happen without teachers and educators and staff knowing what to engage with and what to look for.”

Resources can help build that trust—a key component in students’ sense of well-being, belonging, and academic performance where schools can have a big influence. With a big wave of unprecedented federal funding coming to schools to help homeless students, educators might feel a lot of pressure to figure out how to use that money well. But here’s one general strategy that might be effective and take a lot of the pressure off: Think about how others can use the money, use it better, and forge lasting relationships.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, student homelessness was on the rise. In fact, it hit an all-time high of 1.5 million students during the 2017-18 school year, according to a federal estimate that many believe is far below the true figure. But COVID-19 has only made the situation more volatile, even as gathering up-to-date statistics about homeless students has proven difficult if not impossible. 

So it’s no surprise that many rejoiced when Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, slipped $800 million for homeless youth into the American Rescue Plan at nearly the last possible moment. That aid could be a real boon to schools that have focused on helping those students with the basics during the pandemic, from providing Wi-Fi hotspots to ensuring they’re actually identified as homeless. 

Yet, there are acute concerns about where things are headed. A federal eviction moratorium expired at the end of July, and the Biden administration replaced it with a 60-day moratorium, only for the Supreme Court to strike it down in late August. The wisdom and impact of such moratoriums can be debated. But that development, along with rapidly increasing rents, home prices, and COVID numbers from the hyper-contagious Delta variant, could set off another troubling surge of student homelessness.

Educators are aware of what the convergence of those factors might mean in the future. In a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey of K-12 educators, 44 percent said they were “somewhat concerned” that the number of homeless students will rise during the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years. Another 12 percent said they were “very concerned” about that possibility. 

“We can’t wait for kids to show up at the door of mental-health providers, or worse, emergency providers,” said Sharon Hoover, a professor at the University of Maryland’s school of medicine and a co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health.

What can schools do?

While they are allowed to use the American Rescue Plan funds to provide emergency housing, that housing is not open-ended, said Kerry Wrenick, the state coordinator for the education of homeless children and youth at the Colorado education department.

Still, that sort of short-term assistance could serve as a bridge to connect students and their families with various services. Homeless families that get that temporary help and see schools working on their behalf could develop more trusting relationships with school staff—something that, in turn, would benefit students.

And this is where outside partners and advocates could do a lot of the heavy lifting.

Schools can form partnerships with and direct funds to community-based organizations with dedicated experts who know the opportunities and challenges of finding affordable and stable housing. These partnerships can be durable, Wrenick stressed, and contribute to keeping homeless students and their families, who are often invisible, in the spotlight. 

Educators might also consider how their go-to approaches and resources for helping students during the pandemic might be insufficient for homeless students.

“You don’t see a family at the end of an off-ramp from a highway with a cup out. They have a shelter, perhaps, but they’re still homeless,” Wrenick said.

Educators might also consider how their go-to approaches and resources for helping students during the pandemic might be insufficient for homeless students.

For example, while it’s already a challenge for young people who are sharing a room or a computer with a sibling (and sometimes even a parent), trying to pay attention to a teacher’s Zoom lesson is even more difficult from a shelter. Providing a tablet or computer can help but often isn’t enough, says Dr. Diane Tanaka, the medical director of the Homeless Adolescent and Young Adult Center at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Solutions can include finding quiet, supervised, and safe spaces for these students to work, like their own libraries, she said.

But once homeless students have been identified, Bohanan agreed, using American Rescue Plan money to provide wraparound services is crucial. And Hoover urged school staff to think about the “layered adversity” these young people may be experiencing, from family trauma to medical conditions like asthma.

“We don’t want to think about our youth in one box. It’s easy to do because our programming is siloed, and our funding is siloed. It doesn’t attend to the intersectionality of our children,” she said. “But they’re often pushed into one program.”

In the same way, schools shouldn’t think of themselves as an island. Building connections between programs, and between schools and the broader homeless community, can relieve stress on systems as well as students, families, and the educators who are trying to help. Without those things remaining intact, the trust homeless students and their families need to feel is fragile if not impossible to build. But in this situation, when it comes to who puts in time and sweat, schools might do better in some cases by passing the baton (and some money) to others.

A version of this article appeared in the September 15, 2021 edition of Education Week as Schools Can’t Solve Our Student Homelessness Problem Alone

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