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Educating Homeless Youth

Homeless Youth Have Education Rights. Now More Than Ever, We Need to Live Up to Them

Tonightmore than half a million Americans – including nearly 100,000 homeless youth – will sleep in a shelter or in a public place. That’s more than the population of Atlanta, Georgia.

Even before the pandemic struck, 1.5 million children had experienced homelessness at some point during the previous school year. Now, as thousands of families face significant income loss due to COVID-19, even more children are at-risk of experiencing housing insecurity, with experts estimating some 28 million Americans on the precipice of eviction.

It cannot be overlooked that, according to Chapin Hall, homeless youth are disproportionately youth of color, LGBTQ+ or indigenous. Even before the pandemic hit, these populations were already served inequitably due to a lack of adequate resources and support. COVID has exacerbated their already vulnerable situation.

So, as districts and policymakers navigate the complexities of bringing students back to school this fall, it’s important to incorporate targeted strategies to address the needs of homeless students into any reopening plan.

Historically, in the larger conversation about how to improve outcomes and experiences for students in America’s public schools, education leaders, while well-meaning, have done a disservice to students experiencing homelessness by continuing to equate their unique needs with those of the broader low-income student population. Evidence shows the needs of homeless students are distinctly different. But this blindspot in education persists.

Homeless students’ academic outcomes as a whole are far worse than their low-income peers and students who are housed, from testing to graduation and in between.

And I should know.

Prior to joining the Raikes Foundation five years ago to lead its education team, I worked as a teacher, instructional coach and district leader. I’m embarrassed to say that as an educator, I hadn’t given much attention to the unique needs of homeless students. But I have since worked closely with our youth homelessness partners who are experts and advocates, an experience that has provided me with new insight that I believe my colleagues across the sector desperately need.

Homeless students’ academic outcomes as a whole are far worse than their low-income peers and students who are housed, from testing to graduation and in between. Data from the CDC also shows that many homeless students face mental and behavioral health challenges that arise from their particular traumatic experiences, which can include exposure to violence and victimization, system involvement and severe economic hardship. And now, they’re having to grapple with the added difficulty of navigating remote learning, often without the proper technology or connectivity.

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Homeless students and their families have strong rights under federal law intended to ensure that their access to education is no less than their housed peers, but too often, they either aren’t aware of those rights or are not in a position to assert them. The ability to do so is all the more important now.

As schools prepare for a difficult and uncertain year, educators must recognize the distinct needs of homeless students to ensure they have the tools to succeed in remote learning and beyond. At the same time, policymakers at the federal, state and local level should allocate funding and resources for this vulnerable population. Otherwise, a generation of students is at-risk of falling behind.

First, educators can support homeless students – even when we’re all forced to be apart – by ensuring their most basic needs are met.

When students lack access to necessities like food, it becomes exceptionally hard to focus on learning and social development. Many schools and community-based organizations across the country have already expanded their in-school food programs during the pandemic, as well as “backpack programs,” which provide students with food for the weekend or during longer school-calendar breaks.

Schools can also provide students with access to their showers and hygiene supplies, including washing machines, throughout the academic year. Even if instruction is virtual, schools can provide for these vital basic needs safely.

An often overlooked but effective data-supported strategy for meeting students’ basic needs is providing flexible funds to young people or their families. This approach has been successful in diverting young people and their families from deeper involvement in the homelessness system. Our partners at Education Leads HomeSchoolhouse Washington and The National Center for Homeless Education provide information, resources and best practices for both educators and policymakers on what else they can do to best support our homeless youth.

If adapted and implemented, these strategies could give homeless students essential relief. But if we want to change how homeless youth navigate our education system in the long-term, we need to rethink current school funding formulas. Funding from the coronavirus stimulus bills can’t be the last stimulus for students and our schools.

As a first step, the federal government should distribute additional rounds of emergency funding to schools facing an uncertain road ahead with targeted funds for the specific needs of homeless students. Increased access to flexible funds, including vouchers for hotels or other services if temporary housing is needed, will give students a safe space to focus on learning.

Learning from home is nearly impossible when students don’t have access to stable housing. We can’t pass up the opportunity that COVID-19 has given us to refocus our efforts on those who need our support the most, and provide students experiencing homelessness the resources they need to thrive.

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Zoë Stemm-Calderon
The Imprint

This story originally appeared in The Imprint, a daily news publication dedicated to rigorous, in-depth journalism focused on families and the systems that impact their lives.