Federal Data Shows 1.5 Million School Kids Are Homeless

January 30, 2020 Updated: January 30, 2020
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Federal data released Jan. 29 shows an all-time high of 1.5 million public school students experiencing homelessness during the 2017-18 school year, a 15 percent increase over a three-year span.

Commissioned at the request of the U.S. Department of Education, the latest report from the National Center for Homeless Education provides a summary of data collected by local and state education agencies from public-school districts in all 50 states during the school years of 2015-16, 2016-17, and 2017-18.

Under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, children are considered homeless if they lack a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” That includes children living in cars, parks, motels, camping grounds, or similar settings as a result of lacking alternatives. It also includes children whose families have to double up with others because of economic hardship or loss of housing. Doubling up with others accounted for 74 percent of student homelessness in the 2017-18 school year.

According to the report, the number of homeless students in unsheltered situations, including cars, parks, and streets, doubled between school years of 2016-17 and 2017-18, jumping by 104 percent. The number of homeless students staying in motels also increased by 17 percent. Meanwhile, the number staying with other people temporarily increased by 9 percent, and the number of homeless students staying in emergency shelters or transitional housing decreased by 2 percent.

In terms of states, sixteen states reported a more than 10 percent increase of their homeless student populations over the three years covered by the report. Eight states experienced growth in the homeless student population of 20 percent or more. In contrast, only four states, namely Hawaii, Kentucky, Michigan, and South Carolina reported a reduction of more than 10 percent.

The states with particularly high numbers of homeless students include California (263,000), Texas (231,000), and New York (153,000). In fact, Texas’ homeless student population doubled over the three-year period.

The federal data also illustrates how homelessness has significantly hindered the students’ academic success. Only about 29 percent of students experiencing homelessness achieved academic proficiency in reading (language arts) in the 2017-18 school year. During the same school year, only 24 percent achieved proficiency in mathematics, and 26 percent achieved proficiency in science. When it comes to graduation rates, about 44 to 87 percent of homeless 4-year students were able to graduate on time, while 41 to 83 percent of 5-year homeless students were able to complete the graduation requirements by their final year.

The authors of the report do note that the figures represent an undercount as they include only those enrolled in public schools and fail to include those who dropped out of school, those who became homeless during the summer, and children who were too young to enroll in any preschool programs.