Making Student Homelessness a Visible Issue

Making Student Homelessness a Visible Issue

Saturday, July 22 marks the 30-year anniversary of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the federal government’s first major legislative response to homelessness. One important—and controversial—section of the law requires states to remove educational barriers experienced by homeless children and youth, out of recognition that many homeless children cannot enroll in school for a host of bureaucratic and logistical reasons.

Three decades later, there are 1.3 million homeless students in U.S. schools, an increase of 160 percent since 1987. And there are hundreds of thousands more homeless children who have already dropped out, or are still too young to be enrolled in school.

A new policy brief published by Liz Cohen of the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness and Barbara Duffield, of the SchoolHouse Connection, looks at where progress has been made at addressing the intersections of homelessness and education, and where work—lots of it—remains to be done.

The authors give the McKinney-Vento Act real credit, not only for providing financial resources to school districts to help homeless students, but also for the “statistical insights mandated by the Act.” They acknowledge that many homeless students would have never enrolled in any school without the law’s protections.

They also note, however, that many students are never properly identified as homeless, so there may be large numbers of children who never have access to services they are entitled to.

In an interview with the Prospect, Cohen expressed frustration that homeless students have not been treated as a distinct subgroup of underserved, vulnerable students.

“The majority of the education reform movement has focused on low-income kids, minority kids, children with disabilities or English-language learners, but homeless children have never really been recognized as anything but low-income students,” she says. “Obviously homeless students are low-income, but there are some important differences in educational outcomes and experiences for children who are currently or formerly experiencing housing instability than for poor students who haven’t.”

Though there’s a great deal of work to do, Cohen says she’s optimistic about the future—pointing to the Every Students Succeeds Act which passed in 2015. This new federal education law requires—for the first time—that schools specifically report the graduation rates of homeless students. Prior to the law’s passage only five states reported the graduation rates for homeless students.

As Cohen and Duffield write at the conclusion of their report:

We can’t say whether we will have ended family and youth homelessness in the next thirty years. Sadly, the rights and services provided by the McKinney-Vento Act may well still be needed at that time. But the wisdom we’ve gleaned from the past thirty years could propel us to make much more progress in the decades to come. What we can and must achieve, however, is to put homeless students on the map. … Our nation and communities must provide adequate resources to boost academic achievement, as well as for mental and physical health needs. Homeless students must know that they are safe in school, and have adults who can and will advocate for them. Their hopes and dreams must guide us, with urgency, as we learn from the past and step into the future.