Student Well-Being

Schools Still See Surges in Homeless Students

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 05, 2013 8 min read
Freshman Catherine Brakel, 18, studies nursing at the University of Alabama in Mobile on a full scholarship, but was homeless for much of her last two years of high school.
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In the year after Hurricane Katrina buffeted the Gulf Coast, Denise Riemer and Larissa Dickinson, both homeless education liaisons for their school district, saw more than 2,000 homeless students and their families in the public schools in Mobile, Ala.

This year, in the wake of an ongoing and far broader economic storm, the two women have seen 5,302 homeless students in the 59,000-student district.

“This is pretty amazing because we’re not even halfway through the year and we’re already up,” Ms. Riemer said. “I can’t believe the number of food-stamp applications I’ve processed so far for unaccompanied youth. We have new students we find out about every day.”

The Great Recession caused by the 2008 economic and housing crisis has technically ended, but the number of homeless students nationwide continues to swell, as school districts’ capacity to help them shrinks.

If added together, homeless students now would make up the largest school district in the country—at nearly 1.17 million, considerably more than the entire student population of New York City public schools. Their numbers have grown 24 percent in the last three years, and 10 percent in the last year alone, according to a new federal analysis released by the National Center for Homeless Education, part of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Forty states have seen a rise in their homeless-student populations in 2011-12, and 10 of those faced a jump of 20 percent or more.

“It’s not a surprise; we’ve been seeing these increases year after year,” said Barbara Duffield, the policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth in Washington. “Homeless education has stopped being just a few programs in shelters and has become part of the fabric of school systems.”

No Shelter

Federal law defines as homeless any child who doesn’t have a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” The number of children living in shelters has remained relatively flat, the study found, but the numbers doubling-up with friends or family, living in hotels and motels, and those without any kind of shelter at all have increased since 2009.

In Mobile County, the family and social safety nets that traditionally protected families in trouble have been strained by prolonged financial problems. “We’re seeing more and more families living in hotels and motels, and we had not seen that before,” Ms. Dickinson said. “With the economic hardships, people are not being able to find jobs. So families who might have been able to take in other families at another time, they can’t now because they are barely scraping by themselves.”

As a study by the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation reported last month, students in poverty make up majorities of public school students in 17 states, including Alabama.

Catherine Brakel, 18, a former homeless student, reviews her university grades online from her apartment in Mobile, Ala. She kept herself afloat during high school working at a local 24-hour diner: "I had school in the morning, then basketball practice, and work 5-9 p.m. On Fridays after basketball games, I did the 10 p.m. shift. ...I did a lot of schoolwork during quiet times on the late shift."

Reasons for Leaving

“With economic hardship, families are giving their children up or placing them with different family members,” Ms. Dickinson said. “And domestic violence is becoming more common, so students are also leaving home for that reason, too.”

Catherine Brakel, now 18, was 15 and a sophomore at Alma Bryant High School in Irvington, Ala., in 2009, when her mother and stepfather both lost their jobs and the family started moving frequently. Ms. Brakel got a job at a local Waffle House restaurant to help out—but also, she recalled, started fighting more often with her stepfather. “Me and my stepdad had a lot of problems, so I just moved out when I was 16,” she said. The state’s age of majority is 19, so even with a steady job, Ms. Brakel couldn’t sign a lease, buy a car, or do more than tread water.

“I didn’t want anybody to know, because it was embarrassing to me and I thought I could do everything myself,” she said. “I really didn’t have time to go to football games or participate in the things everyone else participated in, because I didn’t have any free time at all.”

Her basketball coach finally took notice of Ms. Brakel’s situation late in her junior year, when she moved from one friend’s home to another but still needed regular rides after practice.

“I was living with a friend in Theodore [a neighboring town], but it was too far away and I was having problems getting to school,” she said.

Meeting Families’ Needs

Transportation is always one of the biggest problems for homeless students, Ms. Riemer said. The district got a 12.5 percent increase in federal homeless education grants this year, to about $63,000, and is putting most of it towards emergency shelter and travel, such as buying students bus passes and gas vouchers. She and Ms. Dickinson have coordinated on behalf of the district with local churches, community groups, and local agencies to provide care for students and their families, but, “everyone—all the agencies and foundations who work with our [homeless students]—is experiencing budget problems,” Ms. Riemer said.

Nearly 1,000 miles north of Mobile, in the 17,000-student Adrian public schools in Lenawee County in southern Michigan, district homeless liaison Beth McCullough has seen an increase in homeless students, with and without families, every year for most of the last decade. “In ‘08-'09, we got to a point where we almost doubled in a year and I had to catch my breath,” she recalled.

Today, that growth has slowed a little—704 homeless students were enrolled this year, up from 641 last year—but the cash-strapped state slashed all state funding for homeless students by half in the past year.

“That’s not sequestration; that’s sequestration and then some,” she said.

Adrian schools are not alone. While a portion of federal education support for students in poverty is earmarked for homeless students, the National Center for Homeless Education study found only 23 percent of school districts receive direct homeless education grants, called McKinney-Vento funds. Those grants have grown by 16 percent from 2009 to 2012, not enough to keep pace with the rise in homeless populations over the same period of time or make up for dwindling state funds, the report found. And just last week, stimulus-related boosts to federal food aid for the poor expired, leading to $5 billion less nationwide.

With the nearest homeless shelter 45 miles away, the district has set up the Road to Graduation, a program modeled after foreign-exchange programs for students, in which local families house and mentor unaccompanied homeless students for a year or two to help them stay in school and make it to graduation.

One of the host parents, the Rev. Joel Sarrault of the local St. John’s Lutheran Church, said there was a “steep learning curve” for both his family members and the student they took in, Gabe, whose migrant farm worker family could not support him. “A lot of our role with Gabe was simply being parents for him, trying to teach him some responsibility and preparing for the future, and he liked the security of knowing, ‘If you say something, you’re going to be there for me.’ ”

“I greatly feel for teachers in the public school system,” Mr. Sarrault said. “There are a lot of teachers who just went out of their way for students like Gabe, but teachers aren’t supposed to be parents.”

For now, local schools and community groups are picking up the cost of the program in Adrian, but Ms. McCullough said she has convinced many school officials to take homeless students or keep them in a stable placement by arguing that federal or state homeless grants would pick up the tab.

“I’ve had enough of those discussions that I know what’s coming,” Ms. McCullough said. “I’m concerned about what happens when homeless kids become expensive kids.”

Homeless students are much more likely than even other students in poverty to have special needs. The National Center on Homeless Education report noted that the number of homeless students with limited English proficiency rose 13 percent from 2009 to 2012, and the number of homeless students with disabilities jumped 24 percent in the same time.

Homeless students are getting more expensive in terms of school accountability, too.

Recent studies in New York City and Chicago have found homeless students often end up clustered in high-poverty and low-performing schools, and can be disproportionately hurt when low-performing schools close.

Tracking Proficiency

Since 2010, the U.S. Department of Education has required all districts—not just those receiving federal homeless education grants—to track the number of homeless students enrolled and tested in mathematics and reading, as well as their proficiency in those subjects. (As of 2011-12, districts must also track homeless students’ science proficiency.)

About half of the 381,000 homeless students enrolled in grades 3-12 who were tested in reading in 2011-12 met their state’s proficiency targets, an increase in both the number tested and the number deemed to be proficient since 2010-11, but still less than a quarter of all the homeless students enrolled in schools at that time.

Testing participation and proficiency likewise rose in math from 2010-11 to 2011-12, but the statistics were more dismal for homeless students in high school than for those in elementary school. Three out of four homeless students in grades 3-8 took their state’s proficiency test in 2011-12, and 48 percent of those students met the standard. In high school, however, only 15 percent of homeless students took state tests, and 42 percent of those test-takers were proficient.

Likewise, only 24 percent of homeless students across all grades took their state’s science assessment in 2011-12, and of those, only 44 percent were deemed proficient.

Ms. Brakel, who graduated this past spring, said teachers were generally understanding of her occasional late assignments and missed school, and she worked hard to keep her grades up, “because I knew grades were all I had,” she said. “I couldn’t play basketball in college. I’m good, but not that good.”

With help from the local Joseph Treadwell Charitable Foundation, Ms. Brakel won a full scholarship to South Alabama University in Mobile, where she is studying to be a registered nurse.

Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2013 edition of Education Week as Homeless Student Population Still Rising


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