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The Education Crisis Facing Homeless Students

An empty classroom is seen at Hollywood High School on August 13, 2020 in Hollywood, California. (Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images)
An empty classroom is seen at Hollywood High School on August 13, 2020 in Hollywood, California. (Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images)

The dawn of 2020 saw a record number of American children experiencing homelessness. For many of those million-plus children, school was the most reliable place in their life. So what happens when education goes remote?  


Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a non-profit focused on homeless youth and education. (@DuffieldBarbara)

Kerri Tobin, professor at Louisiana State University’s School of Education. Her research is focused on the effects of poverty on children’s education. Co-author of “Homelessness Comes to School.”

Melissa Douglas, Kansas City Public Schools homeless liaison. About 10% of Kansas City Public Schools students qualify as homeless.

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Christine Quinn, president and CEO of Win, the largest provider of shelter and supportive housing for families and children in New York City.

Nikki Hannon, director of parent and community outreach for Browning Public Schools in Montana.

Interview Highlights

What do homeless children lose when schools close?

Barbara Duffield: “When schools close, children and youth who are homeless lose the single greatest source of stability in their lives. They lose the place that they come to every day, where they have shelter over their head, temporarily, food, caring adults and the structure and normalcy that really is the respite from the rest of their lives from homelessness.”

We keep quoting this number that 1.5 million children experienced homelessness in 2018. We’re in 2020 now. And I’m seeing some reporting that says the number might actually be less than that, but not for the best reasons.

Barbara Duffield: “What we heard at the beginning of the 2020 school year, 2021 school year, is that the people who are designated to identify students who are homeless were seeing fewer numbers. Their numbers were significantly reduced at a time when every indicator would point to increased family homelessness.

“We surveyed those individuals, McKinney-Vento liaisons designated under federal law. And we found about on average a 28% drop in the number of students experiencing homelessness identified by public schools. Not because we’ve magically solved family homelessness during a pandemic, but because it’s so hard to identify families and youth who are homeless when schools are closed.”

Why is it harder to track and identify homeless children right now?

Barbara Duffield: “When children and youth are coming to school every day, you have eyes and ears who are looking for signs of potential homelessness. Everyone from enrollment staff who may be asking about a student who’s moving, teachers who notice children are falling asleep in class, cafeteria workers who noticed that children are hoarding food, coaches who noticed that children are showing up earlier or staying late after school.

“When schools are closed, all of those signs are not there anymore. … So that’s why we’re very concerned that the drop in the number of identified students who are homeless doesn’t reflect reality. It reflects the fact that these students may be disconnected from school and we don’t know who they are or where they are.”

How long have schools been asked to be the safety net for kids who are experiencing homelessness?

Kerri Tobin: “The McKinney-Vento Act included supports for homeless students. So as of 1987, there’s federal law that says schools are required to provide access to students experiencing homelessness, which means they can’t be denied enrollment even if they don’t have the required paperwork. So maybe their immunization records got lost in the shuffle between home and the shelter. Schools still have to allow them to enroll.

“Parents have a choice whether they want to keep their children in the school where they were originally enrolled before they lost their housing. … [If] they end up in another district, perhaps in a shelter that’s in a different district, the parents get to choose whether they want to keep their kids in the school they were in, or move them to another school. And then schools also have to provide transportation. Those are some of the very basic access issues that schools have been required to provide since 1987.”

Are schools still legally required to provide those supports to those children?

Kerri Tobin: “Yes, they absolutely are. Unfortunately, there’s some issues around sort of interpreting what exactly is meant by access. So access to some schools just means we know we have to let them enroll. And unfortunately, even … pre-pandemic, that’s not a given in a lot of districts. There are still schools and districts that sort of do creative things to prevent homeless students from enrolling. And so sometimes there have to be legal challenges just to get kids to be allowed to enroll in a school. So there’s that access piece.

“And then even once they’re allowed to have access to the school building, schools are supposed to provide transportation, but a lot of districts don’t know that or don’t have the funding. Because unfortunately, McKinney-Vento has been poorly funded since the beginning.

“So even pre-pandemic, it was hard to get those access issues. And now that we’re in the pandemic, educators are asked to think about what does access even look like when you’re talking about virtual schooling. Is it a device? Is it a device and Wi-Fi? Is it a device with built in Wi-Fi? Does access have to mean a device, plus Wi-Fi, plus a quiet place to use it? … What does access look like exactly? Schools are absolutely legally required to do this. But there are huge questions.”

The federal Department of Education and HUD have two different definitions for homelessness. Can you explain why the agencies have different definitions?

Kerri Tobin: “I think it’s because if we included the number of families that are ‘doubled up’ [shared housing arrangements], it would make the number of homeless people in the United States much, much larger. Millions of people would qualify and then we’d have funding issues. And I think HUD is more concerned with, do you have a roof over your head?”

Barbara Duffield: “I think there’s a perception that if you’re staying with somebody else doubled up, you’re not as vulnerable. So HUD has really been focused on single adults on the street since the late ‘80s. That’s who it caters to. So the idea that families would fear shelter, would avoid shelter … and stay with somebody else has sort of made them into kind of a second class, if you will. And the idea that they’re not as vulnerable, that this is staying with grandma in a cozy environment, that’s not the reality. Of course, the reality is these are very unstable situations, often dangerous.

“And when we look at the outcomes for children and youth who are doubled up, who don’t meet HUD’s definition, they’re [affected] as bad as kids who are staying in shelters, kids who are in shelters. So there’s really kind of no validity to this notion that the non-HUD homeless, if you will, experience … is less damaging. So I think that’s a big part of it.

“And again, schools are unique in that they’re in every community — universal safety net. There’s not a shelter, bed or house for every child who needs it. But there is a seat in the classroom. So that allows schools this wider lens into what homelessness actually looks like and just how mobile and fragile these families and youth are, even if they’re not meeting HUD’s definition.”

On the support homeless families need

Kerri Tobin: “We have to think of teachers as the initial contact. Because if a teacher can’t identify that a student might be experiencing homelessness, then there’s no way for anybody at the school administration level or the district — it never gets to a liaison if teachers don’t know what to look for. So part of what we need is just training for teachers, which unfortunately really doesn’t happen as often as we wish it would.

“So we have in many cases, wonderful state liaisons, wonderful district liaisons doing really hard work. But what they’re doing doesn’t always trickle down to the classroom in the way that they think it does or the way that we think it should.

“And we need more funding for all of that, because if we’re going to have more professional development for teachers, we have to compensate them for their time. Or figure out a way to get them that professional development so that they know exactly what the situation is that they’re trying to help solve. And then we just need more funding in general, like everyone has highlighted transportation. It’s a huge, huge issue and has been since the beginning.”

From The Reading List

Chalkbeat: “Across the U.S., fewer students are being identified as homeless. Educators say that’s actually a bad sign.” — “Across the country, school staff are reporting a ‘shocking drop’ in the number of students who are identified as homeless and are therefore entitled to critical support from their school.”

60 Minutes: “A wave of evictions is on the horizon. What impact could they have on kids’ education?” — “There were new additions to classrooms when schools opened this fall. There were plastic shields and cloth facemasks, hand sanitizer and login instructions when learning went online. But something was missing — tens of thousands of students.”

KCUR: “Children Will Bear The Brunt Of Kansas City’s Looming Eviction Crisis” — “Mikaela Johnson has a vague notion of a home she’d like to live in with her mother and her younger brother and sister.”

Chalkbeat: “Housing instability is expected to rise. Schools are already on the front lines.” — “Denise Riemer has spent 18 years watching out for young people with unstable housing in Alabama’s largest school district.”

Hechinger Report: “Homeless students set adrift by school closures face crisis after crisis” — “On a recent weekend, Destiny, 17, spent an unusually sunny spring day canoeing near her temporary home in Western Washington. Technically homeless, Destiny has been staying with her grandmother. She went to sleep that night on the living room couch with a slight ache in her throat.”

Chicago Sun-Times: “Inside the life of a homeless Chicago student in the age of the coronavirus: Fear of failing — or not surviving” — “For the first three months, it was a park bench by Douglas Park on the West Side.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.