In the 2020–2021 school year, around 1.1 million public school students, or 2.2% of all enrolled students, were identified as experiencing homelessness. This count comes from the Department of Education, which tracks children and youth homelessness through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
The McKinney-Vento Act is the primary federal law providing educational access for homeless youth, allocating $92 million to public school districts in 2019. It is used to fund everything from personal school supplies, transportation to school, and fees for class projects. In the process, it collects data on student homelessness. The data reveals challenges in identifying students experiencing homelessness, especially after the school shutdowns following COVID-19, as well as getting resources to these students and preventing adverse outcomes.
The act defines homeless children and youths as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” This includes situations such as:
This definition is broader than other governmental definitions of homelessness. For example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development only counts youth living with relatives as homeless if there is documentation that they will lose housing within 14 days. The act’s more expansive definition allows more students to access services, such as transportation to and from school or basic school supplies.
In the 2020–2021 school year, 1.1 million public school students were identified as experiencing homelessness. Of these students, 76.8% lived temporarily with others due to loss of their own housing, (known as “doubled-up"); 10.9% lived in shelters and 7.8% lived in hotels or motels.
Most identified students experiencing homelessness spend nights doubled-up.
Furthermore, homelessness disproportionately impacts Native, Black, and Hispanic students. While 2.2% of all students were identified as experiencing homelessness, this percentage included 1.3% of white students and 0.9% of Asian students. By comparison, over 3% of Black and Hispanic students and over 4% of Native students experienced homelessness.
However, McKinney-Vento data remains an undercount of homelessness. It relies on teachers to identify students in need and reporting to a local homeless liaison. These liaisons, who may be full-time liaisons or hold other positions in the district, coordinate with school districts to make sure children get the services they need. Each district also applies for McKinney-Vento subgrants to provide services from states. Without good recordkeeping and proactive teachers and liaisons, students lose access to resources.
Spring 2020 school closures made it harder for teachers to detect homeless youth and help them get the services they needed. Schools identified fewer homeless youth after COVID-19, despite evidence of increased need. Students especially faced lack of internet access, housing, food, and child care.
Outside of difficulties identifying homeless youth, few school districts successfully apply for and receive McKinney-Vento subgrants from state educational agencies. Districts must identify enough students experiencing homelessness, demonstrate an ability to meet the identified needs, and show a commitment to the education of all homeless youth. These requirements, plus competition for funds after schools apply, place barriers between students in need and resources.
Without resources, students face difficulty succeeding in school. High school graduation rates among students experiencing homelessness are 13 to 16 percentage points lower than the average graduation rate. Because educational attainment impacts lifetime earnings, these students can continue to face long-term disadvantages without support.
For children and youth in unstable housing situations, school can be a refuge from dangerous and traumatic home situations. McKinney-Vento is one of the only federal policy solutions to connecting these students to necessary resources to graduate high school. However, its reliance on local homeless liaisons and competitive subgrants means that many students slip through the cracks.
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