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COVID Shutdowns Hurt Homeless Students. School Reopenings Bring New Challenges.

Students without permanent homes face unique issues as in-person learning resumes. Are schools ready to support them?

Students head home now, after another day of learning at Greensboro Elementary School in Greensboro, Maryland, on September 17, 2020.

In the fall of 2019, Tonya Zuber, a disabled single mother living in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, had to have two consecutive surgeries. Although her rent was fully paid, she fell behind on her utility bills, and by the time she returned home from the hospital, the family’s heat, hot water and electricity had been turned off.

“It was brutal,” Zuber recalls, “but we had a roof over our heads and my son was attending school. We were getting by and making do.”

But the situation quickly deteriorated. Zuber says that shortly after the utility shut-off, someone reported the family’s living situation to Children and Youth Services.

“They told me that if we did not go into a homeless shelter, they would step in and remove the kids. So, two days before Christmas, I took my 4-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son and began sleeping on a church floor. No one would help us get our electricity turned back on,” Zuber told Truthout. “We went from that shelter to our own private room and then to a facility where we shared a kitchen, bathroom and living area with other homeless families.”

Zuber’s son was then in sixth grade and despite their situation, made the honor roll during the year’s first marking period. Then COVID caused schools to close down and he began to struggle.

“Sequan became depressed,” Zuber says. “He wanted to be out with his friends, get away from me and his sister for part of the day, and he couldn’t. He started getting D’s and F’s. He felt alone. There were no kids his age at the shelter and we were locked down. He couldn’t focus. The lack of support from his teacher was another factor, but she had 30-plus kids to deal with on Zoom and just expected the kids to sit still and listen.”

For his part, Sequan, now a 13-year-old seventh-grader, says that he was often confused, with no idea what was going on or what was expected. “I’m not the type to learn from a screen,” he told Truthout.

Sequan is now relieved to be back in class, despite necessary precautions like masking and distancing.

Zuber is also relieved and says that she is proud of her son, noting that despite real difficulties, he remained connected and completed the last school year. Furthermore, the family moved into a stable, affordable public housing unit in April. Since then, Sequan’s grades and focus have shown marked improvement.

Other homeless kids have not fared as well. After losing their lifeline to food, clothing, laundry facilities and showers when schools closed their doors, many have floundered. In addition, 6.6 million kids lost in-person access to physical and mental health care when the country’s 2,500 school-based health centers were shuttered, and had to rely on telemedicine when and if it was offered.

Even more troubling, a significant percentage of them — both those who were homeless before the pandemic and those who became homeless at some point during it — have simply gone missing.

Homeless Students Face New Challenges — and Some Benefits

According to a report compiled by SchoolHouse Connection, a Washington, D.C.-based homeless advocacy organization, and Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan, an estimated 423,164 students who had been identified as homeless in the fall of 2019 became unaccounted for during the pandemic.

“School has been the safest, most stable place in their lives,” the report, entitled “Lost in the Masked Shuffle and Virtual Void: Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness Amidst the Pandemic,” concludes. “Without a home and without school, these students are at risk for losses that could last a lifetime.”

Seventeen-year-old Brittney Roberts, her mother and two siblings became homeless in October 2020 and have been looking for an affordable apartment in Brooklyn, New York, ever since. “It seems impossible,” she told Truthout. “The rents are ridiculous, $2,100 for a one-bedroom. We’ve also encountered a lot of racism from landlords who don’t want to rent to a Black family.”

This enrages Roberts and has made it difficult for her to concentrate on, and complete, her schoolwork. “Some days I feel so bad I can’t get out of bed. Literally,” she says. “I go to a private prep school for girls in Massachusetts, Dana Hall, on scholarship, and am a trimester behind. I came home in the middle of the 2019-2020 year and have tried to keep up, but the assignments keep piling up and there is not a lot of empathy or sympathy from my teachers. They don’t want to hear that the Airbnb we’re in has no Wi-Fi.”

Advocates emphasize that the pandemic and remote schooling have posed unique challenges for homeless students. Yet some have also seen benefits. Sonia L. Pitzi, the Region 3 coordinator for Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness in eight central-Pennsylvania counties, notes that some homeless children actually preferred remote schooling.

“Some of the kids had a hard time using the technology, but others actually thrived online,” she says. “They felt safer being away from the bullying and actually enjoyed connecting with other kids on Zoom. Meeting other kids who were homeless, kids they might never have met otherwise, was an added bonus.”

What’s more, she says that some of the kids liked the flexibility of asynchronous classes and benefited from being able to set their own schedules.

Still, she acknowledges, any benefits came against a backdrop of unpredictability.

“The pandemic caused a level of chaos for everyone, but this was elevated for people who were homeless,” Pitzi says. “For the unaccompanied kids, when the schools closed, the biggest challenge was finding a place to hang out, with Wi-Fi, to do school work. Libraries were closed. Parks were closed. Even kids who lived with family ended up on their own because many of their caregivers were essential workers.”

Pitzi further notes that the lack of normalcy — not seeing friends, not being able to do laundry, shower and eat at school, and not feeling comfortable talking about what was going on in their lives with teachers, friends and counselors online — meant that many schools lost track of people. “We know that some were living doubled-up; walking on eggshells became their new normal,” she adds. “Others were in cars, storage units, hotels and abandoned buildings.”

Similar trends have reverberated throughout the country, as homeless students have contended with shifting circumstances since the pandemic began. Sonia M. Jenkins works with homeless youth as the McKinney-Vento specialist for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Education Center in North Carolina. (The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act is a 34-year-old law that guarantees a public-school education to everyone, regardless of whether they have a permanent home.) In 2017-18, Jenkins says, 4,598 Charlotte-Mecklenburg students in grades K-12 were identified as homeless. “This year we’ve identified about 3,000,” she told Truthout. “The rest vanished due to COVID.” Jenkins says that the district’s major source of information about a student’s whereabouts is transportation, since the bus drivers who take kids to and from school learn when someone changes location or loses their home. “Once we went remote,” Jenkins says, “that stopped. I think parents and caregivers feel that because the schools don’t provide housing, there’s no reason to tell the schools that they’ve moved out of town, gone into a shelter, or are living doubled up.”

Meanwhile, both Pitzi and Jenkins worry that even more families will become homeless in the coming months. If the CDC eviction moratorium is allowed to expire at the end of June, new surges of homelessness are anticipated. In addition, Pitzi fears that if tenants are unable to access federal relief dollars to pay rent arrears, a massive wave of displacement will occur.

The concern is on point. The Eviction Lab at Princeton University stresses that renters of color are the most likely constituency to have lost wages as a result of COVID. “Job losses put a number of families at risk of eviction,” their website reports. Indeed, six months ago, at the end of 2020, economists estimated that 20 million tenants had fallen behind, owing a whopping $34 billion in back rent.

Jenkins says her district is attempting to reach out and juggle the needs of homeless and potentially homeless students with the needs of the rest of the student body and hopes to learn more about each student’s situation during a voluntary summer camp/summer school that will run from June 14 to July 30. “We hope it will be a success because the kids have missed so much,” she explains. “There are so many challenges hitting everyone, but we know that we need to be cautious, listen, and see how we can support families. We can’t impose what we think is best for them.”

A Growing Need for Permanent, Affordable Housing

But schools, no matter how well-intentioned, are not, as Jenkins says, housing providers. “The scarcity of affordable housing made the pandemic worse,” Sarah Saadian, vice president of public policy at the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), told Truthout. “We need to build back a better housing system for everyone.”

Federal grants have now begun to roll out for those facing eviction due to rent arrears, Saadian continues, but people need to apply for relief, and many face barriers to the application process. “We are working to make sure the money goes to the most marginalized populations, low-income people of color and non-English proficient populations who typically get left behind,” she says.

But while these grants may play a role in keeping people in their homes, they are a stop-gap measure that ignores the crux of the problem: the lack of affordable housing in all 50 states.

“Housing is not treated the same way as other safety net programs like Medicaid and Medicare,” Saadian says. “Money for housing programs has to go through an annual appropriations process, and the allocation has never matched the need.” For example, she reports that the amount earmarked for rental subsidies is so low that only one in four — yes, 25 percent — of eligible households are able to access aid.

While a rent subsidy is essentially a payment to private landlords, the NLIHC sees the issue of full funding for every eligible family as an essential interim step in assuring that no one is without shelter. The organization is also pushing for $70 billion in federal money to repair and maintain public housing and $40 billion to build and preserve existing housing for those in greatest need.

“The president’s infrastructure plan includes $213 billion for housing,” Saadian adds. “Passage will require bipartisan support, but the pandemic lit a fire about homelessness and the need for affordable housing. Housing activists are working to promote stable, affordable housing, in some areas buying up vacant hotels and turning them into single-room occupancy units. Throughout the pandemic, FEMA has allowed localities to use disaster relief money to house people in hotels. This reduced the spread of COVID among homeless individuals and small families. Using vacant hotel rooms for permanent housing is one solution, one approach, to meeting people’s needs.”