During the pandemic’s first year, schools across the country lost track of more than 400,000 homeless students.
As schools opened their doors to in-person learning, the number of homeless students began to increase.
However, the federal eviction moratorium has been lifted. There are concerns that the problem may be worse than it appears. And that more children are disconnected from two anchors in their lives — school and home.
“With the disruptions that we saw last year, and now new disruptions, we’re concerned that whatever schools are observing is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that focuses on homeless education
This concern is evident at schools in cities such as San Diego, California, Richmond, VirginiaThese families are ready for more evictions and are trying to locate their students who were missing during the pandemic.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Education gave $800 million in additional grants to K-12 schools in order to support students experiencing homelessness during this pandemic. However, the funding has not reached many school districts as a result. bureaucratic tie-upsAnd slow-moving state legislatures.
Experiencing homelessness can have grave consequences for a child’s future: youth who live through it are far less likely to graduate high schoolIt’s far more likely to occur later in life.
Marcella Middleton is a firsthand witness to the struggle. She was homeless as a child and a young adult. She is now co-director at A Way Home America, a nonprofit that focuses on youth homeless.
“There’s the assumption that the broader society has that once you’re an adult, it’s really on you. You have to get yourself together because you’re grown now,” Middleton said. “But it’s like, well, if I experienced these things while I was young and trying to figure things out, that’s going to impact how I navigate life as an adult.”
The Center for Public IntegrityDuffield and Middleton were interviewed about how the pandemic made identifying students who are homeless more difficult and what the government can do in order to support families.
* Public IntegrityWe edited the conversations to ensure clarity and length.
Why is it that schools have struggled with identifying children experiencing homelessness during this pandemic
Barbara Duffield:The disruptions to learning and the pandemic have masked the fact that many students are experiencing homelessness. We know for certain that the housing crisis has not improved. We know there was a slow start to the rent relief distribution, and that’s still a lot of barriers there. We know that the eviction moratoriumThe federal one was lifted and we have concerns about that. All of the systemic drivers of homelessnessThey have not been hampered, so we would expect that. But, in terms of our ability to actually know, it’s been very challenging.
Marcella Middleton:The pandemic has cut off so much of the connection young people had. The connectivity and resources for young people was already limited. So, when the pandemic struck, many young people were cut off to the outside world and shut off to other resources because of the way we had navigated based on policies [designed]To ensure that people are safe.
What happens to students experiencing homelessness?
BD: If you don’t know where you’re going to stay every night, at least being able to go to the same school gives you some sense of stability, and normalcy, and routine. It becomes a refuge when all else is chaotic. This makes school even more important. It can also be difficult to keep that oasis of calm and focus. Because, you’re worried about where you’re going to sleep, you’re worried about what’s happening to your parents or your siblings, you may not know if you’re going to have supper that night. The stressors that accompany homelessness do make their way into the classroom, and of course, there’s a big challenge with just regular attendance.
MM:This causes you to immediately fall into a fight or flight mode which can lead to a lot of toxic stress. It’s hard for you to focus on day-to-day things. At the time, it was hard for me to focus on daily things such as school, family, work. I was experiencing homelessness at the time and was in fight or flight mode. How can I focus and function on all these other things and all these other places if I don’t have anywhere safe to lay my head?
How can federal funding help students who are experiencing homelessness
BD: I would say that it’s way too early to know the ultimate impact [of federal funding], but what we’re hopeful about is that many districts that never had dedicated funding before, will, for the first time, have some funding specifically targeted for identifying and supporting these students. The funding is significantly higher for districts that have had some funding in the past, so they can improve their performance and be more effective in supporting these students. We hope that these funds will allow schools not only to meet the current needs, but also to identify more students, and show what can actually be done long-term.
MM: The pandemic has done a good job of showing us the things that we were fighting for before, like direct cash payments to young people experiencing homelessness … was something that we could do. We’d been fighting for that before the pandemic. And we kept getting, “No, no, no.” Now the pandemic has convinced people this is something we can do. That’s really important, to assess the things that the pandemic has forced out into the open that can actually be done.