Hundreds of Thousands of Children Are Homeless — and the Problem Is on the Rise

During the pandemic’s first year, schools across the country lost track of more than 400,000 homeless students.

As schools reopened their doors for in-person learning this year, the number of students identified as homeless began to creep back up.

But, with the end of the federal eviction moratorium, there are fears that the problem is worse than it appears on the surface. 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 focused on homeless education.

That concern is evident in school districts in cities such as San Diego, California, and Richmond, Virginia, that are bracing for more evictions that would uproot families or struggling to locate students who disappeared during the pandemic.

The U.S. Department of Education released $800 million in additional grants last year to help K-12 schools identify and support students experiencing homelessness during the pandemic. But the funding has yet to reach many school districts because of bureaucratic tie-ups and 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 school and far more likely to experience it later in life.

Marcella Middleton knows the struggle firsthand. She experienced homelessness as a child and young adult and is now co-director of A Way Home America, a nonprofit focused on youth homelessness.

“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 Integrity interviewed Duffield and Middleton about how the pandemic made it tougher to identify students experiencing homelessness and what the government can do to identify and support families.

* Public Integrity edited the conversations for length and clarity.

Why have schools struggled to identify children experiencing homelessness during the pandemic?

Barbara Duffield: The pandemic and disruptions in learning really masked how many students are experiencing homelessness. Certainly, we know that the housing crisis has not gotten significantly better. 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 moratorium, the federal one was lifted, and have concerns about that. All of the systemic drivers of homelessness have not been abated, so, yes, we would expect that. But, in terms of our ability to actually know, it’s been very challenging.

Marcella Middleton: The pandemic has shut off so much of a connection that young people had. Resources and the connectivity to that for young people were already scarce. And so, when the pandemic hit, a lot of young people were shut off from the world and just shut off from different resources just because of the way we had to navigate based on policies [designed] to keep people safe.

What happens when students experience 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. So, it becomes an oasis when everything else is turned upside down. School becomes that much more important. At the same time, it becomes very challenging to keep that oasis in 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: You fall immediately into this fight or flight mode, which creates a lot of toxic stress. It’s hard for you to focus on day-to-day things. For me at the time, going to school, making sure my family was okay, going to work, focusing on those things were really hard because I was in this fight or flight mode because I was experiencing homelessness. 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 support 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 districts that did have some funding before, now have significantly more, so they can up their game and increase their capacity to support these students. We hope that they will allow schools to not just meet the needs of the day, and identify more students, but also really show what can be done on a longer-term basis.

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.

This article first appeared on Center for Public Integrity and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.