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Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, public schools identified a record 1.5 million children and youth experiencing homelessness this year - roughly the population of Dallas, Texas. We anticipate the pandemic will only increase these already-high numbers, and racial disparities continue to run rampant. Compared to their white peers in high school, Black students are 2.67 times more likely to experience homelessness, and Hispanic students are 1.68 times more likely to experience homelessness. Ensuring access to education for youth experiencing homelessness is by definition an issue of equity and civil rights.
But when it comes to conversations around meaningfully addressing youth homelessness, housing-based solutions often receive the lion's share of attention - the idea that we can end homelessness if only we could provide a roof over everyone’s head. The hard truth? It’s not that simple.
At best, housing is a short-term fix: if youth can’t sustain their housing, they continue to experience homelessness, and they are more likely to become homeless as adults. If we want to make real progress, we must prioritize solutions that can prevent homelessness in the first place and stop it from repeating in future generations - and that means education. Education gets ahead of homelessness by providing the support and tools necessary for youth to cope, succeed, and thrive as adults. In fact, not completing high school is the single greatest risk factor for homelessness as a young person, making education a critical investment in lasting solutions.
School-based solutions also offer immediate, life-saving help. While there is not a shelter bed or a safe place to call home for every youth who needs one, there is a federally-mandated seat in the classroom - even virtually - for every youth experiencing homelessness, in every community. Schools offer safety, structure, food, caring adults, and the opportunity for normalcy and social-emotional connection. As first responders, schools are uniquely positioned to respond to trauma and intervene quickly. Homelessness is already a traumatic experience for a young person, and the upheaval caused by the COVID-19 outbreak only deepens trauma. Even during the pandemic, when school building closures have made identification much more challenging, school district homeless liaisons designated under federal law are conducting youth outreach in the community and training educators to respond to virtual signs of potential homelessness. Without a safe and stable place to stay, transportation, internet, or sometimes even phones, these youth face unique barriers to accessing community-based services and online learning opportunities. We’re seeing local school districts and education agencies do their best with limited resources, from efforts to expand digital access through prepaid phones, devices, and hotspots to helping youth access motel vouchers and other means of shelter. Ultimately, these efforts can only go so far without targeted federal financial support for their efforts - especially in light of looming state budget cuts in many states.
Yet too often, youth remain invisible in their schools, just as they are invisible in their communities. Most youth experiencing homelessness aren’t on the streets; they stay wherever they can, and move from place to place - couches, floors, motels, cars, and campgrounds. This is especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic, when even fewer shelter beds - if any - are available for youth. Unable to safely socially distance or remain in one place, youth experiencing homelessness are at a higher risk of transmission and infection, as well as predation and harm. Yet youth who are forced to stay with others are ineligible for assistance through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), as well as from many state or local agencies, due to HUD’s restrictive definition of homelessness. This makes school quite literally their only safety net.
Solutions must reflect what we know - not just what we can see - and center schools as those best equipped to lead. The longer our educational and housing institutions fail to understand and recognize how youth experience homelessness, the further we risk locking out children and youth - and the schools that protect them - from critical immediate and long-term support. The upheaval caused by COVID-19 only deepens the trauma of homelessness, and the potential for lifelong impacts. Breaking generational cycles of homelessness starts with refocusing our attention and resources on education, and the critical safety and support it offers youth. If we work together to drive solutions centered on the power of education, we can break cycles of homelessness and truly deliver on the promise that every young person has the opportunity to succeed.
We can start with the following steps to ensure all youth can access their right to an education and the keys to a better life:
- Read up: Familiarize yourself with the issue by reviewing resources around education and youth homelessness. Get started with SchoolHouse Connections’ Frequently Asked Questions page or our SchoolHouse in Session Medium page.
- Spread the word: Circulate SchoolHouse Connections’ recently-created youth-focused PSAs within your networks to help raise awareness and connect youth to educational rights/resources.
- Learn about and support on-the-ground efforts in your area: You can find the contact information for your local homeless education liaison via the directory here and inquire what they are doing to identify and support homeless youth. If possible, donate directly to your local educational agency’s McKinney-Vento homeless education program or identify a local school-community foundation and donate money specifically earmarked for homeless students.
- Support advocacy work: You can learn more about our advocacy efforts via our federal policy page and our state policy page.
- Support solutions that recognize the reality of homeless youth: Support solutions and organizations that recognize the hidden, mobile, and vulnerable nature of this population. We can break cycles of homelessness, and education makes that possible.
Original contribution by Barbara Duffield, Executive Director of SchoolHouse Connection.