A record-high 1.5 million students were homeless during the 2017-18 school year, 11 percent more than the previous year and nearly double the number a decade ago, according to new federal data.
To put that in perspective, imagine a school district bigger than New York City and Miami-Dade put together, made up of children who are trailing other students—even those in poverty—by 10 percentage points or more in math, reading, and science. Eighteen percent of them have learning disabilities. Nearly that many are still learning English. Virtually all of them experience stress and trauma.
Sixteen states have seen student homelessness rise 10 percent or more in the last three years alone, according to the analysis released this month by the federally funded National Center for Homeless Education, part of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Districts from Chicago to Grand Forks, N.D., from Paducah, Ky. to the Austin, Texas, suburbs are struggling to keep up with the swell of their most vulnerable students—mostly with limited money. While federal homeless education funding rose $12 million from 2015 to 2017, there was no increase in the number of districts receiving those subgrants. On average, per-pupil spending for homeless students increased only $3 during that time.
“There’s no one thing driving” the rise in student homelessness, said Barbara Duffield, the executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a national homeless education organization. “There are parts of the country where the costs of housing have gone up. There are parts of the country hard hit by disasters, parts of the country where opioids and methamphetamines have definitely had an impact. There are challenges around persistent poverty, poverty that isn’t necessarily impacted by rising economy or wages because people aren’t working at all.”
The 2017-18 school year saw wide displacements from natural disasters such as wildfires in the West and hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, but Norma Mercado, the homeless liaison for the Bastrop, Texas, school district outside Austin, said the rising homelessness there has been caused by deeper and less sporadic problems, including gentrification, poverty, lack of affordable housing, unemployment, and underemployment.
Mercado said community partnerships and wraparound services have proven “crucial” to advocate for and support the 100 new homeless students Bastrop has seen each year since 2015.
Rebeka Beach, manager of Cincinnati public schools’ Project Connect, which identifies and supports homeless students, said she has also seen a nearly 100-student increase since last year, and the district is bracing for more, as Beach has found even larger increases in the community’s preschool-age homeless population.
The Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to track homeless students’ academic achievement and high school graduation rates, and while many states have been slow to report the data, deep academic gulfs have come to light between homeless students and low-income students with stable housing.
As of 2017-18, homeless students lagged behind housed students in poverty at every grade and subject tested under ESSA. Overall, only 29 percent of homeless students performed proficiently in reading and language arts, 8.5 percent fewer than other low-income students. Roughly 1 in 4 homeless students was proficient in math and science overall, compared to a third or more of housed low-income students.
Those intense academic needs are compounded when schools begin to see multiple homeless students in the same schools—many of which also serve other low-income students.
“I do notice some performance gaps between students experiencing homelessness and their housed peers,” said Beach of Cincinnati. The district now provides therapeutic writing groups, tutoring and college exam preparation, peer mentoring, and parent engagement sessions at homeless shelters, among other supports.
“I think that [a] relationship with students is such a powerful intervention, and I think having the capacity to do this in a meaningful way requires more feet on the ground,” said Beach.
Capacity to support homeless children has become such a concern in Chicago that the teachers’ union negotiated it into its most recent contract. Each school that enrolls 75 or more homeless students will now get one new full-time homeless coordinator, and the handful of schools that enroll 140 or more homeless students will get two full-time staff members.
While federal law requires schools to identify and serve homeless students, in most schools, one teacher or staff member—a social worker, Title I director, or foster care advocate, for example—adds those duties to an already-full plate, according to Patricia Nix-Hodes, the director of the Law Project of the Chicago Coalition of the Homeless, which helped inform the new staff requirements.
“Clearly, as the numbers increase, someone who has this role on top of many other roles would not have the time or capacity to serve those families or even to identify all the students who might be in homeless situations,” Nix-Hodes said.
Jennifer Modeen, homeless education director for the 7,400-student Grand Forks, N.D., school district, agreed. Grand Forks has 161 homeless students—10 percent more than last year—and Modeen manages their cases along with the district’s foster students and others who need social services. With students scattered across 18 distant campuses, Modeen had to buy—and occasionally drive—a van just to help get homeless students to and from school, therapy, and other appointments.
“This is really a very hidden population for a number of different reasons, which makes the advocacy and the community response more challenging,” Modeen said.
Falling Through Cracks
Amid the overall nationwide rise in homeless students, the number living on their own, without a parent or guardian, also rose—by nearly 17 percent, to more than 129,000 students. Unaccompanied children now make up more than 1 in 10 homeless students in 29 states, and 8.6 percent of homeless students nationwide.
These unaccompanied students worry Heather Anderson, the homeless and foster student case manager for the 3,200-student Paducah school district, in Western Kentucky.
Anderson has identified more than 200 homeless students so far this year—about 70 more than she typically has. For unaccompanied homeless students, she said, the growth has been especially dramatic.
“I usually have like six, and I have 28 right now, which is blowing my mind. I have never had that many, ever,” she said.
Some were left behind when a parent sought work in another city. Others left home because of parents’ abuse or drug problems. But these students can have even more difficulty navigating school and life than other homeless students, she said, because insurance, housing, and other school or social programs often require an adult guardian’s signature.
Paducah offers dental and basic medical care on site for uninsured students, and partners with community groups and the local library to provide after-school tutoring programs, extracurricular activities and social cafes—anything to give children safe places to do homework and hang out for a few more hours of the day.
But even with supports available, it’s easy to overlook students like Cara, a 12th grader in Paducah, who became homeless two years ago, when she and her grandmother lost their house. (Cara spoke under a pseudonym.)
Cara’s mother gave her up as a newborn and moved to Tennessee to live near a hospital that treats her younger brother’s cancer. Cara’s father was also homeless, and all three lived in her grandmother’s car until Cara found space with her best friend.
Her grades dropped and she frequently came to school exhausted, Cara said. But that first year, “I didn’t really tell anybody. I just kind of went through it.”
“I know some of my teachers noticed when I walked in on a bad day.” She said, “They’d say, ‘You look kind of pale, you look like you don’t feel good.’ ... But you know, they don’t really ask me about it, more like, you know, ‘Oh, she’s having a bad day, so let’s just leave it alone.’ ”
This year, Cara reached out to Anderson for help, as her grandmother and father cycled in and out of hospitals for ongoing respiratory illnesses and chronic, untreated diabetes. Anderson has helped Cara find academic help to bring up her grades and get accepted into Middle Tennessee State University, where she will live in the fall with an older sister on campus.
In graduating, Cara provides reason for hope. States have varied wildly when it comes to helping homeless students make it through high school, with four-year graduation rates ranging from 44 percent to 87 percent. In 22 states that provided five-year graduation rate data, 41 percent to 83 percent of homeless students earned a diploma in five years.
But Cara’s the kind of student who keeps Anderson up at night.
“It bothers me that she wasn’t identified last year, and I’m wondering how can I get better at identifying the students who keep it a secret?” she said.
Anderson isn’t alone in her concern.
Even as their numbers rise rapidly, homeless students are getting harder for schools to find. Federal law defines as homeless any child who doesn’t have a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence,” but the number of homeless students staying in shelters, transitional housing, or temporary foster care placements—places operated through agencies or community groups that give schools a heads up when new children arrive—has declined since 2015-16.
By contrast, tens of thousands more homeless students stayed in hotels or doubled up with other families than was the case previously, in part due to housing policy changes that favor providing homeless families with hotel vouchers instead of shelter space.
And the number of students living entirely unsheltered, such as in a car as Cara did, more than doubled from roughly 43,000 students in 2015-16 to nearly 103,000 students in 2017-18.
“In shelters at least there’s more services, there’s stability, we can do transportation easier,” said Duffield of SchoolHouse Connection. “But when families are diverted to motels or to these really precarious situations with other people ... then we see kind of persistent homelessness because families kind of had the rug taken out from underneath them and they have even fewer supports.”
Over 1 million students in the U.S. are homeless, and that instability means they are more likely to drop out of school. In this video, Kansas City, Kan. high school students Grace Wright and Malik Ali Cushon talk about their experiences being homeless, and what their school has done to help:
A version of this article appeared in the February 12, 2020 edition of Education Week as Ranks of Homeless Students Surging