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Confronting a hidden education crisis

How schools can support rapidly growing number of homeless students

In the 2013-14 school year, there were more than 1.3 million homeless students, a 7 percent increase from the previous year and more than double the number in 2006-07. While that number is troubling, researchers believe it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Erin Ingram, chief author of “Hidden in Plain Sight: Homeless Students in America’s Public Schools," says many homeless students go unreported fora variety of reasons. But the end result is often the same—multiple absences, poor grades, lack of engagement and more.

The study examines the growing problem of student homelessness at an especially critical time, because this fall ESSA amendments to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act will begin requiring districts and states to report graduation rates for homeless youth. Getting an accurate picture of the problem—and finding ways to address it—is a challenge that all districts must confront.

The title of your report is appropriate. I never imagined the homeless student situation was so extreme.

I was surprised, too. I would never have thought the numbers were that high before I started working on this. Probably, like most people, I thought of homeless students as being teenagers who run away from home who are living on the streets in Los Angeles somewhere. You think, “How many of those kids can there really be?”

It was a revelation to see that the majority of these students are homeless with their families. So you have whole families who are displaced that are living in motels or in shelters or bouncing from relatives’ houses to friends’ houses and back to the motel.

On the other hand, there is also a rather large population of “unaccompanied” students.

Right. These are kids who have run away from home. They tend to be normally fleeing situations that they feel are unsafe.

There are also many children who have been asked to leave. They might have become pregnant or they might be young people who are either lesbian or gay and pushed out by their families. In fact, there are a disproportionate number of LGBT young people who are on their own

. We’ve also heard from young people who are asked to leave because there aren’t the resources at home to care for them, and so their families push them out for that reason, too.

You wrote, “Our communities and country can’t solve problems they don’t understand.” What is it exactly that they don’t understand?

We interviewed young people who are currently in school and homeless, and then we also surveyed young people from 18 to 24 who were homeless at some point in time during their schooling.

What they told us was that they often did not report or tell anyone that they were homeless. No one at their school ever knew because they were embarrassed, they were afraid that their friends would make fun of them or they were afraid that they would be removed from their families.

There’s a real fear about what the consequence of reporting their situation may be, so many young people just choose to say nothing, which makes it really difficult for schools to be helpful.

Also, many young people said, “When I was homeless, I was trying to get to school every day from farther away than I should have been. It was noisy where we were staying in the shelter. I couldn’t sleep at night. I couldn’t do my homework. And because we were always moving, I never had my books or my school supplies.”

So they would show up to school and fall asleep in the back of the class. Or they wouldn’t complete their homework assignments on time.

To a teacher or an administrator that looks like disengagement and disinterest, when the reality is the student is exhausted and stressed and unable to perform well in school. So that’s a problem. If you don’t understand what the problem is, how are you supposed to help?

Many schools have liaisons trained to recognize the signs of homelessness, but the report suggests that school staff be trained as well.

Right. Bus drivers, for example, have been some of the most helpful people because they notice that students no longer get off where they used to or they get off and there is no one waiting to pick them up anymore. That could be a clue there.

Cafeteria workers, too, may notice that students are trying to take extra food home with them. That could indicate instability.

We also heard from students that they experience a lot of emotional and mental stress, and depression, and fear or worry. So that could be another clue for teachers—when a student who is normally engaged and active and talking with their peers and is now withdrawn and silent and disinterested.

While many schools do offer training for the liaisons and their staff, our big push is including more adults in that training. The more adults who know what to look for, the more quickly we can identify and help these students.

With the pressures they already have, why should schools also be the key link in this chain?

Schools are a pillar of stability for these students who are otherwise extremely unstable. These kids come every day, many of them because it’s the only safe place they have. They come for meals because it may be the only place they will get food during the day.

Schools are a central community pillar that can really serve as a convening point for a host of other resources. While we don’t suggest that schools should have to make sure that students are housed, they can form great connections with local housing agencies.

We’ve seen some great examples of schools working with government housing agencies and nonprofits. So when a teacher identifies a student who is homeless, they can immediately connect that student to an agency that does have the resources to help.

And because they see that child every day teachers are going to be more aware of when something is wrong. They can make the connection much faster than expecting students to figure it out themselves.

Homelessness often has a mental health component as well, doesn’t it?

Yes. That was something I found surprising. When we asked students what would help them stay in school, they told us things like transportation, housing, food—tangible supports. But an equal number mentioned social and emotional supports as well.

They said it was vital that they be able to continue doing their after school programs—such as sports and arts—but they also wanted a caring adult who they could check in with each day, someone who was there for them.

That’s a big piece of this, too. How can we help those students maintain the connections that they do have and then also connect to adults who can help them? Imagine being 14 and homeless. How are you supposed to know how to deal with that as a kid?

To that point, the report notes that the people who most need help aren’t always aware it exists. What can district leaders do to get this message out?

Leaders can ask, “What are our community assets? What are the organizations that we have that can maybe help us fill some of the gaps? How could we work together?”

In school, it could be something as simple as posting signs to spread awareness: “If you report that you are homeless to your school counselor that information will be confidential. If you report that your family has lost their home, these are the ways that we could help and this is what will happen.”
Students don’t have to be afraid that they’ll be taken from their families.

Liaisons told us there’s not nearly enough outreach outside the school to the families themselves. How can the schools help parents understand where there are resources—and what their rights are as parents? For example, if you are a parent who was living in the district, but now you’ve lost your home and are no longer in the district, under federal law your child has a right to stay in their school of origin. Helping parents understand that would be valuable.

We think schools could do a better job of connecting to those organizations and knowing who can help them. There might be people in the school who
already have that knowledge. Maybe the school counselors know which mental health organizations can be counted on.

It’s a question of gathering knowledge and putting it in one place.

Tim Goral is senior editor.