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What Now? Homeless Students in the Aftermath of Harvey

The water in Houston may be receding, but the damage has been done.

Before a single drop of rain fell in the state of Texas, more than 110,000 children in at least 25,000 families were homeless. Now those numbers have swelled into the hundreds of thousands. As Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath continues to wreak havoc and uncertainty upon hundreds of thousands of Texas families, a sense of urgency is spreading across the country. Many are wondering, can this storm–along with the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina–inspire opportunities to provide homeless students, children, and families with psychological, physical, and educational supports on a larger scale than we’ve ever seen before? Most importantly, is Houston prepared to make schools the stable center of life for children affected by homelessness for the new school year?

Prior to Harvey, there were over 5,900 students in Houston and over 22,000 living in the greater Houston area, experiencing the trauma of homelessness on a daily basis. Many of the newly homeless families, whose lives as they knew them are currently under 30-plus inches of water, are experiencing this trauma for the first time. For both populations, care and support must be established immediately and sustained for years to come. Because, if there’s anything that we know from extensive research, it’s that the trauma of homelessness does not disappear when one establishes a new home. In fact, the impacts of homelessness are known to last for years.

Furthermore, as others have pointed out, many of the Texas families made refugees by Harvey were also survivors of Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago. So, in addition to the trauma experienced during Katrina, families are forced to relive it with Harvey. One report issued after Katrina showed that families moved an average of 3.5 times following their evacuation from New Orleans. Another study found that at least one-third of children displaced by Katrina were at least a full year behind in school. If there’s one clear lesson from the tragedy of Katrina, it’s that trauma has lingering effects long after the crisis is over.

For example, a child’s academic achievement sees long-term effects from the instability of homelessness. These students have lower test scores than their low-income peers, who have never been homeless, for up to three years after the episode of homelessness ends. Recently, a report from the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness found that formerly homeless students continue to be at greater risk for both high numbers of school absences and mid-year transfers than low-income students who have never been homeless. How do we ensure that children made homeless by this storm are quickly settled into stable homes and schools?

Now is the time to begin talking about how we prevent the same disastrous outcomes from Hurricane Katrina from repeating themselves in Texas. If one cornerstone of the American spirit is that children can achieve anything they want through education, another is that in times of crisis, we come together to support those struck by tragedy. We should use the coming days, weeks, months, and years to ask the hard questions about what could have been done differently in New Orleans and what must be done now to keep homeless children on track for success. No matter when Texas children became homeless, we must put forth a plan that assures Harvey’s aftermath is a short-term crisis, instead of a long-term tragedy that robs them of their futures.

 

Liz Cohen
Chief of Staff, Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness