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With Child Homelessness on the Rise, What Can Schools Do?

"This is something that school districts are just going to have to plan for," says an education official in Washington state, which is proactively helping these students succeed and secure housing.

Kid walking down a school hallway with a backpack.
When schools started back up this fall, many across the country witnessed something that’s become as common on the first day as new backpacks and freshly sharpened pencils: another surge of homeless and housing-insecure schoolchildren.

It’s a problem that’s been growing in the years since the Great Recession, exacerbated by shortages of affordable housing. Across Washington state, for example, more than 40,000 schoolchildren experienced homelessness at some point during the 2016-2017 school year, a 33 percent increase from four years earlier. And for some individual school districts in the state, the problem has been particularly acute: The Seattle Public Schools has seen an 81 percent increase in the number of homeless students in the past five years. For the Peninsula School District on the outskirts of Tacoma, the number rose by an eye-popping 381 percent.

Statistics are similarly grim in New York City, where it’s estimated that 1 in 10 schoolchildren lacks stable housing. This school year is the fourth in a row in which that number has topped 100,000. New York City now has more housing-insecure students than the entire population of Albany.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, “families may be able to find housing further inland, but they’re certainly bouncing from one place to another,” says Christine Stoner-Mertz, president of Lincoln, a nonprofit serving the region. Across California, more than 300,000 schoolchildren experienced homelessness in 2016.

When children don’t have stable housing, it’s well documented that they are much more likely to fall behind in school, score lower on standardized tests, miss classes and drop out altogether. “It’s a problem that isn’t going away. No community is untouched by this, and teachers are being called to address really complex issues,” says Jennifer Pringle, project director at Advocates for Children of New York, which has been critical of the city’s efforts to help homeless schoolchildren. In 2017, there were only 110 family assistance caseworkers assigned to children in city homeless shelters, leaving each worker with a caseload of 293 children. For licensed social workers, that number was even more dire: one for every 1,660 homeless students. The city has promised to hire more in the coming year.

Washington state now requires every school district with more than 10 homeless youths to provide a “homeless liaison” at every secondary school to help connect these students to district and community resources. In 2016, lawmakers created a grant program that offers in-need school districts resources for housing-insecure students such as after-school tutoring, clothing and books. The state also has allocated $10 million for efforts around transportation, aiming to ensure that students who are bouncing from address to address don’t have to change schools every time they move.

Nathan Olson, communications and community liaison for Washington’s school superintendent, doesn’t expect the numbers of homeless and housing-insecure students to decrease anytime soon. “I do think at least in the near future, this is something that school districts are just going to have to plan for,” he says.

School districts and statehouses are going to have to start looking to outside partnerships. “Working with local nonprofits is critical because schools can’t do it all by themselves,” says Stoner-Mertz. “How do we find ways to make sure they get lesson plans when they’re missing school? Are there alternative ways they could get this education? We’ve got to start thinking outside of the box.”

Mattie covers all things health for Governing.

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