by Andy Beres, National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ASHINGTON, D.C. — For the first time in history, public schools reported more than one million homeless children and youth, according to data released on June 26, 2012, by the U.S. Department of Education. The 1,065,794 homeless students enrolled by U.S. preschools and K-12 schools in the 2010-2011 school year is the highest number on record, and a 13 percent increase over the 2009-2010 school year.
This total underestimates the number of homeless children, because it does not include homeless infants and toddlers, young children who are not enrolled in public preschool programs, and homeless children and youth who were not identified by school officials.
Forty-four states reported year-to-year increases in the number of homeless students, with 15 states reporting increases of 20 percent or more. States with the largest increases in the numbers of homeless students include Kentucky (47 percent), Michigan (38 percent), Mississippi (35 percent), Utah (47 percent), and West Virginia (38 percent).
The number of homeless children enrolled in public schools has increased 57 percent since the beginning of the recession, in the 2006-2007 school year.
In Michigan, the number of homeless children enrolled in public schools has increased 315 percent between 2008-2011. “Every single county in Michigan reported homeless children and youth in its public schools,” said Pam Kies-Lowe, coordinator for homeless education at the Michigan Department of Education. Economic conditions in the state have contributed to the problem. “One school district referred to child and youth homelessness as the ‘tsunami after the earthquake’.”
Under federal law, school districts are required to immediately enroll homeless children and youth. The law also requires that, when it is in his or her best interest, schools ensure that homeless students can stay in the same school when forced to move. Every school district must also designate a homeless student liaison to provide assistance and referrals.
“Schools are the largest provider of services to homeless children and youth. Education is both a safety net and a ladder up and out of poverty. “ said Mattie Lord, president of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. “School districts across the nation have responded to the increase in homelessness by creating food pantries, developing housing programs, and assigning academic advisors.”
“As we reported in America’s Youngest Outcasts, the number of homeless children and youth in America continues to increase,” said Ellen L. Bassuk, MD, president of the National Center on Family Homelessness. “These high numbers reinforce the urgent need to increase targeted funding to public schools through the Education for Homeless Children and Youth program. A good education can put children and youth who are homeless on the path to a brighter future.”
The data also shows the troubling depth of America’s housing crisis. “The severe lack of affordable housing for families has yet to be addressed, and over one million children are paying the price,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “Everyone has a human right to safe, decent, affordable housing. And until we make that right a reality for all Americans, the number of homeless students will continue rising.”
Not all of the children included in the data released today are recognized as “homeless” by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). As a result, homeless children are eligible for educational assistance through local schools, but not help from HUD. Congress is considering legislation — the Homeless Children and Youth Act (H.R. 32), sponsored by Congresswoman Judy Biggert (R-IL) — that makes all homeless children identified by public schools eligible for HUD homeless assistance.
“Homeless kids shouldn’t be denied a safe place to sleep, a meal, and other basic needs because two government agencies can’t agree on definitions,” said Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus Campaign for Children. “This data gives Congress more than a million reasons to pass the Homeless Children and Youth Act.”
The data released on June 26 are available on the website of the National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE). NCHE is the U.S. Department of Education’s technical assistance and information provider in the area of homeless education.
The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP) seeks to end and prevent homelessness through advocacy, public education, and impact litigation.