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How to Support Students Experiencing Homelessness

The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the unique challenges facing students experiencing homelessness. So much so that American Rescue Plan (ARP) aid is targeted at supporting these students. FutureEd Policy Analyst Brooke LePage interviewed Barbara Duffield, Executive Director of SchoolHouse Connection, which works to overcome homelessness through education, about how best to support these students in the upcoming school year.

How many students were experiencing homelessness before the pandemic?

Public schools enrolled about 1.4 million students, pre-K through grade 12, experiencing homelessness. But this number doesn’t get to children and youth who may not be in school or who simply slipped under the radar and weren’t identified.

What about during the pandemic?

Once the pandemic began, it became challenging to identify these students. We did a survey of districts last fall and found that districts enrolled 28 percent fewer students experiencing homelessness. Typically bus drivers, or teachers, or cafeteria workers would identify these students. But during virtual learning, this wasn’t always possible. With schools going back in person, we are starting to see another uptick.

What are some of the other unique challenges students experiencing homelessness face?

It’s never just not having a place to stay. There are so many things that go with homelessness, like domestic violence, mental health, or addiction disorders. And mobility makes it challenging for schools to provide things like food and transportation for these students. Yet schools are still the one universal safety net that these students have.

How do schools try to connect with these students?

In addition to direct outreach to places where students are staying, they provide prepaid cell phones to try to connect via text or apps that do check-ins. But this doesn’t work for every student. Even if you have a device, where do you plug it in? How do you charge it?

The ARP dedicates $800 million directly for students experiencing homelessness, as well as $122 billion in the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Fund (ESSER) that public schools can spend on a range of priorities, including supporting homeless students. And the federal government appropriates funds annually through the McKinney-Vento Act. How should this money be used?

McKinney-Vento is crucial because it provides annual appropriations as well as student protections. But less than one in four school districts receive direct funding through this program. So these districts that receive funds are a bit ahead of the curve, and are more likely to use ARP/ESSER dollars to implement things like wellness centers and transportation depots that house back-up school vehicles and provide a place for students to be safe while waiting for transportation. But other districts who have never received funds before perhaps should use these dollars to identify students and meet their basic needs.

And the ARP dollars dedicated to homelessness have a bit more flexibility than McKinney-Vento dollars so they can meet a broader set of needs. They can be used for store cards to buy necessities or for a couple of days in a motel, as a bridge to longer-term housing support provided through other ARP programs. We’re going to be closely watching how much this increased flexibility helps schools and districts better support and stabilize these students.

As districts look to address the pre-existing gaps that are now highlighted and exacerbated by the pandemic, homelessness has to be a part of that conversation. Because if students can't get to school on a regular basis, they're not benefiting from all of those other investments.

What about staffing?

Services don’t provide services, people provide services. The homeless-specific ARP funds have a longer timeline than the other ESSER funding, which means it’s better positioned to be used to hire staff. Having staff to conduct outreach and help families navigate services is so important.

What are other ways schools and districts are preparing to support these students?

They’re focusing on community partnerships: Some are strengthening existing collaborations and others are forging new ones. These include partnerships with realtors, eviction courts, housing agencies, health departments, early learning programs, Boys & Girls Clubs, United Ways and more. But some rural school districts may not have as many of these partners available, and may have to work to figure out how to provide services themselves.

How do the federal and state eviction moratoria and rent relief policies instituted during the pandemic impact these students?

It depends. Some families are moving before they get evicted because they don’t want back rent debt or an eviction on their record. Some families aren’t aware of the rent relief available to them.

There are many cracks through which families and youth are falling, and those cracks are about to get a lot bigger. Schools play a key role in ensuring these students don’t fall through those cracks, whether they know it or not.

Do we need changes to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s definition of homelessness?

We have a big policy problem with HUD’s definition because many families and youth don’t meet HUD’s narrow definition of homelessness, nor are they eligible for rent relief from ARP.

For example, if a family is staying with other people temporarily, they aren’t homeless enough for HUD, but they also don’t owe rent, so they aren’t eligible for ARP rent relief. If a family is paying to stay in a motel, they aren’t considered homeless by HUD, but if a charity or government agency pays for the motel room, they do meet HUD’s definition. So schools may have to respond to these policy conflicts by putting a family in a motel for a couple of days until they can contact homeless assistance agencies, since once they’re in a motel and the motel’s being paid for, they do actually qualify.

Is there anything else school and district leaders should keep in mind as they look to use these federal dollars and support students experiencing homelessness?

It's really important to understand that homelessness is an experience, not an identity, that many vulnerable children and youth have. These are students of color. These are students with disabilities. These are English learners. These are the same students who have been left behind in so many ways. And when they have the experience of homelessness, all of their challenges are doubled and tripled and quadrupled.

I think some schools hear homelessness and think, "Oh, yeah, housing issue," but research shows that lack of a high school degree or GED is the single greatest risk factor for continued homelessness. It’s important to appreciate that education can be used as an immediate help and a long-term, preventative measure for supporting these students.