Blog: The Educated Reporter

Rise in Homeless Students Strains School Safety Net

I met an elementary school counselor in Henderson, Nev. a few years ago, who was looking for a good deal on sleeping bags.

The economic downturn has struck southern Nevada harder than almost any other region in the United States. The local schools are struggling to help thousands of students and their families facing dire economic conditions. At this particular campus, nearly 80 percent of the students met the federal government’s definition of a homeless person as anyone who lacks “a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”

Two sisters, age 8 and 11, were among those students with no reliable place to call home. When their aunt had room at her apartment, they shared a couch. When there wasn’t room, they bunked down with their father on the floor of a neighbor’s garage.

With the sleeping bags, the school counselor reasoned, at least the girls wouldn’t be cold.

The number of public school students in the United States identified as qualifying for homeless services under the federal McKinney-Vento Act has soared in recent years. According to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, in the 2010-11 academic year there were 939,903 homeless students who received services such as transportation and counseling. That’s a 38 percent increase since 2007.

Those figures are both astronomical and frightening.

Experts and advocates agree those figures are probably on the low end, given that many parents refrain from seeking government services out of concerns that they might lose custody of their children. Even harder to count are the older youth, who often have no contact with even their parents.

“We know there are high school students who have left abusive family situations – what we categorize as unaccompanied homeless youth – who are doing everything they can to avoid detection because they don’t want to go into foster care,” said Barbara Duffield, national policy advisor for association. “They go to extreme lengths to blend in.”

Even with these efforts to deflect attention, school districts still reported 65,317 unaccompanied homeless youth in 2009-10, double the number since 2007.

This is a crisis. This is a socioeconomic time bomb that will have repercussions on individual students, schools and the wider communities for many years to come.

For more on how states are responding to the increase in homeless children and youth, I encourage you to read a new report from the National Center on Family Homelessness, entitled “America’s Youngest Outcasts.” The report gives state-by-state rankings, as well as important national overviews.

You can also listen to a recent webinar we held on the issue, featuring Duffield, Dr. Ellen Bassuk (the National Center on Family Homelessness’ founder and executive director) and Pamela Hosmer, who coordinates programs and services for homeless students in the San Diego Unified School District. (Click here for the link to the webinar.)

The webinar offers excellent background on the core issues, along with recommendations for story angles that have gone underreported.


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