Lost in the Masked Shuffle & Virtual Void:
Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness Amidst the Pandemic
[This report is prepared by SchoolHouse Connection and Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan.]
Schools provide safety, stability, and services for children and youth experiencing homelessness, as well as the education that is necessary to avoid homelessness as adults. However, in order to benefit from targeted educational protections and services, children and youth must first be identified as experiencing homelessness. New survey data suggests that an estimated 420,000 fewer children and youth experiencing homelessness have been identified and enrolled by schools so far this school year – despite evidence of increasing homelessness, and despite proactive identification efforts by many school district homeless liaisons. This decrease in homeless student enrollment, combined with previous estimates of under-identification, means that as many as 1.4 million children and youth experiencing homelessness may be un-identified and unsupported by their school during the pandemic. Survey responses also demonstrate significant unmet basic needs, as well as the failure of federal CARES Act dollars to reach children and youth experiencing homelessness. If our nation is ever to recover from COVID-19, we must increase outreach to and support for children, youth, and families experiencing homelessness through public schools and early childhood programs, and prioritize their education and well-being in all public systems of care.
“I am concerned they are getting lost in the ‘masked’ shuffle, or in the virtual void. With so many things that folks are attending to, I just fear our kiddos experiencing homelessness will become even more invisible than they already are.”
-From a homeless liaison in Michigan
Key Finding #1: An estimated 420,000 fewer children and youth experiencing homelessness have been identified and enrolled by schools so far this school year.
Based on responses from 1,444 liaisons in 49 states, there was a 28% decrease in the number of identified homeless students in the fall of 2020 compared to the fall of 2019. If we apply this percentage decrease to the most recent federal student homelessness data (1.5 million homeless students, preK-12), then 423,164 homeless students have not been identified, and may not be in school at all, or receiving basic needs and educational supports.
The reality is that this number is likely much larger. There is significant evidence that public schools were dramatically under-identifying homelessness even before the pandemic. Analysis of the Centers for Disease Control’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey data indicates that 4.9% of high school students experienced homelessness at some point in the 2016-2017 school year. In contrast, public schools reported only 2.27% of their high school students as experiencing homelessness. In other words, prior to the pandemic, public schools have been identifying only slightly more than half of high school students experiencing homelessness, meaning that as many as one million students experiencing homelessness have not been receiving services they need, and to which they are entitled under the federal McKinney-Vento Act.
Combining the long-standing likely under-identification of one million homeless students to the additional likely pandemic-related under-identification suggested by our fall 2020 survey, indicates that as many as 1.4 million homeless students may be facing homelessness without school supports during the pandemic.
This estimate is consistent with a previous national study that estimated that between 1-3 million of the most marginalized students, including those experiencing homelessness, have not been in school since March. Neither study takes into account likely increases in family and youth homelessness due to the economic impact of the pandemic.
Distance Learning/School Closures are the Primary Reason for Lower Homeless Student Enrollment
Of liaisons who indicated that homeless student identification was lower this year, the primary reason (69.7%) cited was “Inability to identify families/youth due to distance learning/school building closure.”
Under federal law, liaisons are required to ensure that children and youth experiencing homelessness are identified “by school personnel and through coordination activities with other entities and agencies.” Typically, identification of homeless students happens in a number of ways, including questions about housing status on enrollment forms, training for school staff on the definition of homelessness and how to look for potential signs of homelessness, and outreach to community agencies. When school buildings are closed, educators have significantly less in-person communication with students and families, and social distancing protocols further reduce opportunities for noticing signs of homelessness and having confidential conversations about living circumstances. Moreover, the high mobility of families and youth experiencing homelessness makes it very difficult for liaisons and other educators to stay in touch with them.
Other reasons cited for lower homeless student numbers include relocation of families, inability to contact families and youth, and disengagement from school. Eviction moratoria appear to be preventing some families from experiencing homelessness in some communities, although a number of respondents expressed concerns about increases in homelessness once moratoria are lifted.
Key Finding #2: While overall homeless student identification and enrollment is down, the number of children and youth experiencing homelessness has likely increased due to the economic crisis.
Twenty-nine percent of liaisons surveyed reported higher numbers of homeless students at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year compared to the previous year. The higher numbers reported by these districts, however, did not make up for the lower numbers reported by the 41% of districts that reported decreases.
The primary reason given by liaisons reporting increased homelessness was “job loss due to COVID” (74.4%). Other reasons included better outreach and identification, incidences of domestic violence, natural disasters/fires displacing families, more families moving into the area, and evictions taking place, despite moratoria.
Key Finding #3: Children and youth experiencing homelessness face significant unmet needs in their communities, including lack of internet, housing, food, and child care.
Liaisons described many significant unmet needs of children and youth in their communities, including internet (64%), shelter/housing (64%), food (47.3%), child care (36.7%), and health care (21.5%). Mental health concerns and lack of transportation also were frequently cited as concerns. These unmet needs pose significant challenges to health and well-being, in addition to learning.
Key Finding #4: Only 18% of respondents indicated that federal coronavirus relief education funding provided by the CARES Act is being used to meet the needs of students experiencing homelessness.
The CARES Act provided $13 billion for K-12 education through the Elementary and Secondary Education Relief Fund (ESSER) and $3 billion for education through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER). Unlike previous emergency supplemental funding bills passed by Congress to respond to disasters (hurricanes, wildfires, and floods), the CARES Act did not include a line item for additional funding for the McKinney-Vento Act’s Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) program. Instead, the CARES Act specified that ESSER and GEER funding could be spent for activities for students experiencing homelessness authorized under the EHCY program, along with five other federal programs, and a long list of general uses of funds.
Based on our survey, it does not appear that many school districts are using CARES Act funding to meet the needs of students experiencing homelessness. Only 18% of respondents indicated that CARES Act funding is being used to meet the needs of students experiencing homelessness; for the most part such funds are being used for WI-FI and technology. 82% of respondents said that they either were not spending CARES Act money on children and youth experiencing homelessness (33%), or did not know if they were spending CARES money to specifically assist homeless children and youth (49%).
Competing demands and the invisibility of these children and youth mean that they are often overlooked – exacerbating their vulnerability, isolation, mobility, and disconnection from educational supports. Without dedicated funding through the EHCY program in future stimulus legislation, children and youth experiencing homelessness are extremely unlikely to receive the assistance they need to participate in education of any kind – in-person, virtual, or hybrid models – or even to be identified at all.
“Some have been due to loss of income and inability to pay rent, as they were already on the verge and this was the tipping point. Others have been in situations where they were doubled-up, and due to having many people under one roof, stress levels are far higher…leading to domestic violence and fleeing or in other cases, just leaving because it was getting too stressful.”
-From a homeless liaison in Washington state
1. Provide significant funding through the McKinney-Vento Act’s Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) program in the next economic stimulus package, and future budgets. Under the McKinney-Vento Act, every local educational agency must designate a homeless liaison with specific responsibilities to identify, enroll, and connect students experiencing homelessness with services. However, without adequate capacity and support, liaisons struggle to identify and assist these students. It is not sufficient merely to allow stimulus funds to be used to meet the needs of homeless students; as demonstrated by the survey, competing demands and the invisibility of homeless students mean that they are often overlooked, despite their vulnerability, isolation, mobility, and disconnection from educational supports. Without dedicated funding through the EHCY program, children and youth experiencing homelessness are extremely unlikely to receive the assistance they need to participate in education of any kind – in-person, virtual, or hybrid models – or even to be identified at all. The tragic result: hundreds of thousands of students losing out on the education that is necessary to avoid homelessness as adults.
2. Include flexible funding through the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, targeted to children, youth, and families who experience homelessness under the broad definition of homelessness, in the next economic stimulus package. Most children and youth experiencing homelessness cannot access homeless assistance provided through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), including funding provided through the stimulus, because they do not meet HUD’s limited definition of homelessness, or cannot make it through the complex process for accessing these funds. At a time when public health experts are telling the public to stay at home and limit movement, these families and youth are at the mercy of other people and must move frequently. Providing flexible funding directly to community agencies to meet a variety of urgent needs would enable families and youth to be stabilized immediately and more effectively, and help control transmission of COVID-19. Congress include in the next COVID-19 economic stimulus a new emergency funding stream through the Administration of Children and Families (ACF) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for community-based organizations (including schools) to meet the unique emergency housing, health, and other needs of families, children, and youth experiencing homelessness during the pandemic.
3. Require state and local educational agencies that receive coronavirus relief funds to develop and implement a plan to provide outreach to identify all missing students, connect them to school and services, report regularly on attendance, offer accelerated learning opportunities, and provide mental health supports. In addition to children and youth experiencing homelessness, low-income children, children of color, children with disabilities, English learners, and children and youth in foster care are also at higher risk of missing out on education during the pandemic. Moreover, while the McKinney-Vento Act is the most effective infrastructure and service delivery mechanism for reaching students experiencing homelessness, other federal programs have important roles to play, too. Therefore, Congress should add assurances in the next coronavirus relief bill to require state and local educational agencies to develop and implement a plan to provide outreach to identify all missing students (inclusive of and with specific attention to children and youth experiencing homelessness, students with disabilities, students in foster care, and students who are English learners); connect these students to school and services, report regularly on attendance, offer accelerated learning opportunities, and provide mental health supports.
State and Local Educational Agencies
1. Ensure compliance with the McKinney-Vento Act. The McKinney-Vento Act remains the blueprint for ensuring that children and youth experiencing homelessness are able to participate in educational opportunities and receive the support they need to succeed. The Act remains fully in effect during the pandemic, and is even more of a lifeline to students and families now. State and local education administrators should review enrollment and other policies to ensure that they do not create barriers for students experiencing homelessness, whether in remote, hybrid, or in-person learning, and also ensure that liaisons are able to carry out their duties, including identification and training duties, per the McKinney-Vento Act’s requirements.
2. Use CARES Act and other funds to support the outreach and identification efforts of McKinney-Vento liaisons, and to provide services targeted to children, youth, and families experiencing homelessness. Our survey suggests that most school districts are not directing federal COVID relief dollars to students experiencing homelessness, despite their disconnection from school and great vulnerability. Education leaders should set aside or otherwise direct funding to specific outreach activities and supportive services for students experiencing homelessness, based on local needs, and inclusive of health and mental health support.
3. Prioritize children and youth experiencing homelessness for in-person learning and child care. Some school districts are offering in-person learning for certain groups of students for whom distance learning creates unique challenges, such as students with disabilities. To the extent that in-person learning opportunities are being provided, students experiencing homelessness should be offered those options on a priority basis and provided transportation. Having a stable, safe place to be during the school day not only ensures better educational outcomes, it also allows schools to check-in with students to help meet other needs.
4. Work with partner agencies to increase broader community awareness of child and youth homelessness, and educational rights. Many families and youth experiencing homelessness may not know that they have a right to get help to participate in education. Therefore, it is important to create broad community awareness efforts directed to parents and youth, as well as agencies who may serve them, and the general public. SchoolHouse Connection has created several public service announcements and posters to help in this outreach.
Homeless, Housing, Food, and Other Relief Agencies
1. Help ensure that parents and youth who are experiencing homelessness, or at risk of experiencing homelessness, know their educational rights, and how to exercise them. Post flyers and provide information about educational rights broadly, including to families and youth who may be at risk of experiencing homelessness – for example, families seeking help with food, shelter, eviction prevention, rent, utilities, unemployment, or other emergency resources. Include information on how to contact local area homeless education liaisons, and offer to reach out schools on behalf of parents and youth in crisis.
2. Support educational activities for children and youth. Create quiet and appropriate space for children and youth to participate fully in educational activities, and provide supplies, access to WiFi and devices, as well as mentors, tutors, or other supportive adults. Ensure that activities are age appropriate, including for very young children. When making housing or shelter placements, ask about school enrollment and child care arrangements and try to place families and youth as close to their schools/child care as is possible.
3. Establish relationships with McKinney-Vento homeless education liaisons to assist with referrals and services. Get to know your local McKinney-Vento liaisons to streamline referral processes and collaborate to address unmet needs of parents, children, and youth.
1. Provide flexible funding either directly to school district or charter school McKinney-Vento programs, or to community school foundations, designated for supporting students and families experiencing homelessness. As community hubs, schools are often best positioned to know the needs of families and students. But public education funds may be restricted in ways that do not allow schools to meet some of the most pressing needs. When schools have supplemental flexible funding, they are able to stabilize families and youth quickly and efficiently, with minimal bureaucratic red tape. Being able to provide direct assistance with health, housing, employment, food, and other basic needs allows schools to improve overall well-being, which in turn improves academic outcomes.
2. Support school-housing partnerships that provide comprehensive assistance for children and youth who meet the broad definition of homelessness under the McKinney-Vento Act. Strong school-housing partnerships can address both housing stability and educational stability, leading to better outcomes. Yet the narrow housing definition of homelessness, and priorities for single homeless adults, often restrict access to critical housing resources for families and youth experiencing homelessness. Partnerships that pair housing, education, and services, like Stable Homes, Stable Schools in Minneapolis, are important ways to leverage public support systems while filling gaps in services for this vulnerable population.
3. Support local or state organizations that advocate for educational rights and supports for children, youth, and families experiencing homelessness. Many state and local organizations are engaged in efforts for educational equity during the pandemic, and in response to the movement for racial justice. Child and youth homelessness may not be viewed as part of these efforts, or local and state educational equity organizations may not have the capacity to undertake specific work on homelessness. Increasing the number and capacity of state and local organizations who take on and prioritize student homelessness can help ensure a chorus of voices pushing for change at the local, state, and national level.
“We have multiple questions embedded in our enrollment process to help identify families who may be experiencing homelessness. Our enrollment team reaches out to me before students are even enrolled if there is a possible homeless situation so that I can follow up and make a determination/offer support. We have homeless information on our website, posted in our office, and included in our monthly newsletter that is sent to students and families. I have developed a staff training that is required of all staff every year.”
– From a Homeless Liaison in North Carolina