Student homelessness is at an all-time high, with over 1.5 million children nationwide experiencing homelessness over the course of the 2017-18 school year. That is the sobering verdict of a new report released by the National Center on Homeless Education (NCHE). This record-breaking total is an 11% increase over the previous school year and a 90% increase since SY 2007–8. This figure, which does not account for the estimated 1.45 million homeless children who are not yet school-aged, is the best estimate available to understand the magnitude of America’s child homelessness crisis. It represents the increasing number of children who, whether unaccompanied or together with their families, are growing up in the midst of housing instability and as a result will face many challenges that put them at disadvantage throughout their education and beyond.
The numbers are staggering. Over 182,000 students sleep in homeless shelters. Approximately 1.1 million (74% of all homeless students) stay doubled-up in temporary arrangements with family or friends, often jumping from couch to couch. Over 100,000 students, both with and without their families, live day-to-day, paying out-of-pocket for hotels or motels. An almost equal number, the most vulnerable of all, sleep unsheltered in cars, tents, abandoned buildings, or in other unsafe places not meant for human habitation. Alarmingly, these latter two groups are the fastest growing, with the number of students in hotels and motels increasing by 17% and unsheltered students more than doubling over the last school year. The only population that saw a decrease in numbers was that of homeless students in shelter which dropped by 3%. This is not surprising, considering that the nation’s supply of shelter units available to families also decreased by 4% over the same period.
There is no one way that children experience homelessness, but regardless of where they sleep, these students all lack a fixed and stable place to live. As a result they are at risk of experiencing the many challenges often correlated with housing instability—mental health issues, hunger, sleep deprivation, sexual violence, substance use, chronic absenteeism, mid-year transfers, and lower graduation rates, among others. Despite these shared challenges, where these students sleep often determines their access and eligibility to many of the support services they need to overcome these adversities.
Unfortunately, the United States lacks a unified federal definition of homelessness, leading to discrepancies in how families experiencing homelessness are counted, as well as what types of assistance they can qualify for. While the U.S. Department of Education (ED) uses an inclusive definition of homelessness to guide the annual count of students experiencing homelessness, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which funds most programs and services available to families that experience homelessness, limits its definition to those living in shelter or unsheltered on the street. This means that the majority of these families, including more than 80% of students experiencing homelessness—those living doubled-up and those staying in paid out-of-pocket hotels or motels—are excluded from the annual HUD homeless counts. As a result, the needs of hundreds of thousands of families and their children are left unmet because they are not considered eligible for important services targeted to those experiencing homelessness.
This discrepancy results in two very different narratives of family homelessness: while the ED figures tell an alarming story of increasing numbers of children experiencing housing instability, HUD’s statistics falsely suggest that family homelessness is actually on the decline, dropping 2% between 2017 and 2018. The assumption that only those who are able to access shelter or are literally living “unsheltered” are homeless, masks the real magnitude and nature of this crisis.
The reality is that the shelter supply across the nation is insufficient—and in some areas nonexistent. When faced with a lack of shelter options, families—particularly those with children—will seek other types of temporary arrangements by any means necessary rather than sleep “unsheltered.”
The fact that more than 1.5 million students experience housing instability during the school year cannot be ignored, nor can family homelessness be defined out of existence. Educators, service providers, and those across the country who work with families that experience homelessness, have witnessed throughout the years the increasing numbers of families and children in need. They are also very aware—as supported by available data on the academic and health outcomes for students that experience homelessness—of the detrimental and long-lasting effects that housing instability can have on children.
It is clear that stemming the unprecedented rise in family and student homelessness will require matching the resources and infrastructure to the true scope of the crisis, and allowing local governments, school districts, and providers to use tailored solutions that target families in need. Nevertheless, this first demands the collective acknowledgment of the experiences faced by those struggling with homelessness. It is time to stop debating which forms of housing instability should be defined as homelessness, and instead turn our attention to how this instability is negatively impacting the lives of children and depriving them of the opportunities that they deserve.
To learn more about ICPH’s research informing this commentary:
- On the differences between the ED and HUD counts:
Are All Children Experiencing Homelessness Being Counted?—www.icphusa.org/TwoCounts
- On the health and well-being of homeless high school students:
No Longer Hidden: The Health And Well Being of Homeless High School Students—www.icphusa.org/no-longer-hidden/
- On the educational outcomes of students experiencing homelessness:
Student Homelessness in New York City—www.icphusa.org/shnyc