Despite signs of a national economic recovery, homelessness in U.S. public schools steadily increased 8 percent, to 1.26 million students, in the 2012-13 school year from the previous year. That may not sound terrible, but consider that it is part of a 58 percent jump in the number of homeless students in the six years since the start of the economic recession of 2007-08.
Percent change in the number of homeless students in U.S. public schools over six years (2007/08 to 2012/13)
(Zoom in and click on any state to see actual numbers of homeless students and annual percentage changes for each state. Interactive map created by Jill Barshay and Sarah Butrymowicz of The Hechinger Report.)
“It’s safe to say there’s been a significant increase in homelessness in schools,” said Diana Bowman, director of the National Center for Homeless Education. Her organization, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, provides technical assistance for the federal Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program.
The U.S. Department of Education quietly released this data on homeless students, in grades pre-K through 12, without issuing a press release or detailed report. The new data were added to a publicly accessible database on September 22, 2014 as part of its annual Consolidated State Performance Report Data.
Some states saw much larger than average one-year increases in homelessness. Student homelessness in New Jersey grew by 77 percent and in Alabama by 68 percent over the most recent one-year period. Washington, D.C., Maine, Montana and New York also experienced sharp increases in the number of homeless students.
But Bowman cautioned against putting too much stock in sharp one-year fluctuations. States sometimes change counting methodologies; longer multi-year trends are more reliable.
More important, and distressing, is the data for the six-year period. Some less populous states saw some of the largest percentage increases in student homelessness. The number of homeless students grew by more than 140 percent in Oklahoma, Hawaii, Alabama, West Virginia, Montana, Idaho, North Dakota and Washington D.C. The color-coded map above highlights which states have suffered the greatest increases in student homelessness since 2007.
The majority of homeless students are not sleeping outside on park benches. According to the Department of Education’s data, three-quarters of homeless children are temporarily living “doubled up” with extended family members or neighbors. (Table 3 on page 2 of this report, “Education for Homeless Children and Youth, Consolidated State Performance Report Data, School Years 2010-11, 2011-12, and 2012-13” shows where homeless school children spend the night.)
“A lot of people think of families living in shelters,” said Bowman. “But it’s really a lot of other situations where a lot of homeless children live.”
The Department of Housing and Urban Development defines homelessness more narrowly, often not including people who are living with others. But Bowman explained that it makes sense for the Department of Education to have a more expansive definition, because the children of these families have still lost their primary residence and are often switching homes and changing schools every few months. “The education disruption makes it hard for them to perform academically. They’re losing friends and teacher connections. They also have greater health problems and emotional stresses,” said Bowman.
Data source: U.S. Department of Education Consolidated State Performance Report Data, 2007-13. Google chart created by Jill Barshay, The Hechinger Report
Many researchers have documented how devastating episodes of homelessness are for a student’s academic performance, both in the short term and over the long term. McKinney-Vento funds were established by Congress in 1987 to support homeless programs. A portion of these funds go to school districts based on the percentage of poverty in their school district. But, as Table 2 here shows, more than a third of the nation’s 1.3 million homeless children are enrolled in school districts that haven’t received any of these McKinney-Vento funds.
A 2014 University of Pennsylvania study found that homelessness was the third most important risk factor to consider when thinking about support programs for disadvantaged children, and that poverty alone wasn’t necessarily harmful to a child’s academic career.
Perhaps with this well-documented rise of student homelessness, lawmakers will start to think about better ways to strategically allocate Title I education dollars — not just to low-income children, but to the low-income children who need them the most.
Data analysis methodology and explanation: Original source data is from the U.S. Department of Education’s Consolidated State Peformance Report Data, in which states are required to report on a variety of figures, including homeless school children. To locate this data, go to eddataexpress.ed.gov, then click on “Build a State Table,” then “Build Table Now.” That will take you to a “State Tables” page. I clicked all states and then selected data under the “Homeless Program (McKinney -Vento)”. I selected “Total Number of Homeless Students Enrolled in LEAs with or without McKinney-Vento Subgrants – Total” for the all six years available, 2007-08, 2008-09, 2009-10, 2010-11, 2011-12, 2012-13. “LEA” is a local educational agency, commonly known as a school district.