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Changing the Conversation about Homeless Students

For years, we at the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness have focused a spotlight on student homelessness in major cities, with annual reports on New York City and now, for the first time, Seattle. In New York, these reports have had real results, helping to push for better funding, services, and trainings that will hopefully lead to better educational outcomes for these students. In Seattle, it’s still too early to tell what effect increased attention for homeless students will have. After spending years talking with school administrators, government officials, and members of the public from across the country, one thing that is clear: we still have a long way to go in changing how we think and talk about homeless students.

The publication of our Seattle Atlas has led many people to the natural question of “Why Seattle?” The most truthful answer isn’t that there was some data trend pointing to Seattle as the most logical follow-up to New York, but simply that they were interested in knowing more about their homeless students and willing to see what the analysis would say. Other partners grew hesitant about a potential collaboration after an initial burst of enthusiasm. Without ever saying as much, they made it clear that there was concern over how their data would be used or, to be more precise, how their data would be used against them. Even in our two instances of successful partnerships, early meetings would often feature multiple questions about the level of control that they would retain over the final report or the extent to which we were planning to criticize them based on our findings (the answer to both of these questions is none).

The reason that local officials have been so cautious, even reluctant, to allow their homelessness data into the public sphere is, of course, that these numbers are too often wielded as a political weapon. Like crime statistics or unemployment rates, rises in homelessness are used as a blunt instrument to denounce those in power and portray their policy efforts as failures. But especially in the case of homeless students, this tactic completely misrepresents the meaning behind the numbers. To begin with, increases in the number of homeless students are often not the sole result of an actual surge in family homelessness, but a product of improved identification practices. A newly identified homeless student is not necessarily newly homeless, and growing numbers are simply evidence that children that were already struggling with housing instability are now being connected to the support services they need.

Although the secrecy that surrounds homelessness data is based on the very real chance that revealing these numbers will open officials up to criticism (whether valid or invalid), this silence does a disservice to the children affected by housing instability. Information on homeless students needs to be available to the public because it is through the lives of these children that the real stakes of the homelessness debate are revealed. For many years now, there has been a vigorous back-and-forth about the right way to end family homelessness: whether it is preferable to give families temporary vouchers to help pay for private apartments or allow them to stay in longer-term transitional housing as they develop the skills for self-sufficiency. Federal dollars now almost exclusively fund the first strategy, as shelter providers protest the shuttering of facilities and the loss of flexibility in helping families. As these strategies are being evaluated and fought over, however, the number of children whose educations are being jeopardized only continues to grow.

As the data from Seattle and New York show, these students can experience long-term impacts on their education and later success as a result of being homeless. For many students, housing instability is not a one-time, short-term situation, but a chronic condition experienced over a period of many years. And in New York, the effects of homelessness are seen for years after a student has been re-housed. Minimizing the negative effects that homelessness has on a student’s education requires a conversation that goes beyond housing options and looks at the types of supports that can be made available to students regardless of whether they are doubled-up, in shelter, or being rapidly re-housed.

It will take a long time before the issues of family and student homelessness are widely understood enough that the fear of finger-pointing dies down and more cities and school districts have an open dialogue with the public about their homeless students and how best to serve their needs. In the meantime, we hope that our continuing work into seeing where homeless students attend school and how their educations are being impacted by instability can broaden the conversation beyond simply what the cheapest or quickest housing options are for these students and toward real consideration of what supports can be put in place to stabilize their education as they are experiencing homelessness.

Josef Kannegaard, Principal Policy Analyst