Homelessness is defined as not having a regular permanent residence. This doesn’t necessarily mean living in the streets or in their vehicles – though many do. A large portion of homeless split their times between hotels, homeless shelters or crowding in with friends and families. For many students, when they go to school each morning, they may have no idea where they will be sleeping that night.
The Department of Education released its latest report on homeless students last month and the numbers are startling. More than 1.2 million K–12 students for the 2011-12 school year were homeless. This staggering number is considered underreported, since many kids take great measures to hide their homelessness due to embarrassment, and parents do their best to stay under the radar for fear of losing their children.
Most states saw a year to year increase in the number of homeless students. The nearly 75 percent increase nationwide since the recession began is a sign that whatever improvements are happening in the economy, it has not reached the poorest families.
These families are often working. However, what they are earning is not enough to cover the cost of housing. The Census Bureau reports that during the same time that the number of homeless families increased, housing costs for families in several major cities required more than 50 percent of their income. Economists consider housing costs excessive when the ratio exceeds 35 percent of a family’s income. Finding any housing, affordable or otherwise, is a major challenge with an average rental vacancy rate of 7 percent nationwide at any given time and home prices eliminate the option of buying. Many housing assistance programs have strict requirements, making many families ineligible for subsidies.
It isn’t surprising to learn that the states reporting the highest increase in homeless students also contain the most expensive housing markets.
The report compiles information reported by school districts across the country. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which was passed in 1987, requires all school districts to provide equal access to public education. They must also count all homeless students in their district and have a homeless liaison meet their needs.
Their needs are numerous – and unique.
Unstable living situations or ones that are crowded and without privacy can lead to a great deal of stress. Multiple living situations can bring many different schools, leading to difficulty socializing and forming bonds, not to mention different curriculum, increasing the chance of getting behind academically. One of the benefits of identifying homeless students is that schools will allow a student to remain in the school of their last permanent residence – providing much needed consistency in their otherwise chaotic lives.
They also need a break when it comes to following the rules. The stress may cause them to act out. Understanding their living situation may require giving a second – or third – chance, meaning that zero tolerance policies can be detrimental to these vulnerable students. Also knowing that they may not have access to a computer, a television, or even a table to sit and do homework means that flexibility is needed for how homework assignments are completed and when.
School is often the only consistent thing in these young students’ lives. It becomes their safe haven. Many wish to remain where they are familiar and strive to succeed. The challenges are massive and most don’t end up as the subject of a feel good movie of the week. For those that do graduate high school and pursue higher education, their homelessness issues don’t magically disappear.
The report noted that more than 58,000 students identified as homeless on college financial aid applications this year. While financial aid is becoming scarcer for those who need it most, colleges and universities are also grappling with an increasing number of students who have food and housing insecurities. One population, former foster care children, are particularly vulnerable as many “age out” of the foster care system, leaving them with no family support or a home once they turn 18.
The cities with the largest foster populations, Los Angeles and New York, are also among the most expensive housing markets.
Colleges and universities are taking particular note of foster kids. Some states have created programs that provide outreach, financial assistance and support for former foster students. For example, San Francisco State University and UCLA provide year round housing for foster students that have no home to go to during summer and holiday breaks. While a dorm room can be pretty quiet when school isn’t in session, it prevents them from being homeless for months at a time.
Homeless students often go unnoticed by school officials. Special guidelines and training are available to help identify these students discretely and with compassion. Teachers and school officials need to be trained to notice telltale signs, such as fatigue, wearing the same clothes or a student carrying a lot of their belongings. The teacher or homeless liaison would then reach out to the student and ascertain what help might be needed. Experts don’t use the term homeless, as families that are doubling up – the most common form of homelessness among students – may not consider themselves homeless, even though they don’t have a residence of their own. The goal is to make them feel safe and receptive to the help that is out there.
All of which requires funding.
Funding is received via federal grants, but it has not kept pace with the increased demand. For the K-12 level, homeless liaisons are reaching out to other community organizations to provide homeless students food, clothing and school supplies. Personnel are needed to provide support for these students and their families as well. Schools’ already strapped budgets are finding it difficult to meet the needs of their students.
The greatest need is for an education, which is the key to preventing these students from becoming homeless adults and continuing the cycle. It’s a long term investment for the benefit of them and society.