Special aid Congress provided for homeless students during the COVID-19 pandemic helped more schools address issues that predated the public health crisis. Now, advocates are pushing for a more permanent funding boost to sustain those changes.
At their urging, at least 89 members of Congress had signed onto a bipartisan letter Tuesday requesting a funding boost for two federal programs: the U.S. Department of Education’s McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program and the Department of Health and Human Services Runaway and Homeless Youth Act Program. Organizers plan to send the letter to leaders of a House Appropriations subcommittee Friday after giving additional members a chance to sign it.
Advocates say COVID relief funding showed the potential for expanded school services for the 1.1 million homeless students schools reported in the most recent federal data.
“Even a small amount of funds makes a big difference for a school district,” said Barbara Duffield, the executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, an organization that advocates for students experiencing homelessness.
A temporary boost of funding for homeless student services
Under a bipartisan amendment to the American Rescue Plan, which was enacted in 2021, Congress designated $800 million in emergency relief funding to identify and support students experiencing homelessness through the McKinney-Vento program—more than six times its typical annual funding level.
That new funding allowed schools with existing homeless outreach to boost support by adding new programs and staff like social workers who connect families to local temporary housing or community services. It also helped schools that previously didn’t qualify for the funding to receive it, providing new options to address factors that keep vulnerable students out of school.
About 44 percent of school districts received McKinney Vento funding with the help of the expanded aid. That’s about double the number that received it pre-pandemic, Duffield said.
Schools also used the funding to help identify newly qualifying students whose family and housing situations may have changed during school shutdowns. They also used it to locate highly mobile students and help them reengage with school facilities.
Getting creative to meet students’ needs
McKinney-Vento coordinators searched for creative approaches and simple solutions, like providing new shoes to a student who had outgrown his only pair or buying laundry machines so that students could do a load after school, they told Education Week last year.
New York state education officials set aside about $7.5 million of the targeted funding for schools to address the overlapping needs of homeless students who are also defined as migrant, immigrant, refugee, or seeking asylum.
The Congressional letter calls on the committee to authorize $800 million annually for McKinney-Vento funding. President Joe Biden’s proposed budget for fiscal 2024 did not suggest an increase for that program, which is currently funded at $129 million.
Advocates also want Congress to increase funding for the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act Program, from $146.3 million to $300 million. That funding is used to help prevent trafficking, to identify survivors, and to provide support for children experiencing homelessness.
“Investing in a young person’s life will enable them to avoid chronic homelessness, intergenerational cycles of poverty, and pervasive instances of trauma,” a draft of the letter to the committee says. “These investments will also allow them to join the competitive workforce and contribute to our economy, experience the benefits of socioeconomic mobility, become leaders of their communities, and participate as civically engaged citizens.”