Dec. 7 (UPI) -- More than 1 million school-age children are homeless in the United States, according to the Department of Education. But experts say that number is likely far higher -- and will only grow as pandemic-era emergency funds continue to dry up.
Because homelessness is difficult to define and calculate, many children go without services, creating a situation that can hinder them throughout their lives. Advocates are calling on Congress to increase funding and address gaps in assistance options.
"Our homeless response system is very much in crisis mode and not focused on prevention," Barbara Duffield, executive director of the Schoolhouse Connection, told UPI.
"An example of how much worse things are this year -- it used to be that if we had a family living in a car we would drop everything. Now it's like it's good that they have a place to go."
The COVID-19 pandemic introduced significant challenges for people seeking shelter and for children who rely on schools for nutrition and normalcy. It also showed what a difference government assistance can make, Barbara DiPietro, senior director of policy at the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, said.
The COVID-19 relief package released in March 2020 included $4 billion in homeless assistance distributed through the Emergency Solutions Grants program. These funds went toward programs that assist the unhoused and people who are at risk of losing their homes, funding relief like hotel stays.
There was also a moratorium on evictions, keeping people sheltered during a financially turbulent time. The moratorium ended in August 2021.
A coalition of researchers from Princeton and Rutgers universities and the U.S. Census Bureau reported in October that children 4 years old and younger are the most likely of any age group to face eviction in the United States.
The final COVID-19 relief package included $800 million to assist unhoused students. These funds are to be used to identify homeless children and youth and provide them with wraparound services.
Those funds will expire in September.
"We showed what we could do during an emergency. Now we go right back to where we were before," DiPietro told UPI. "It's worse because you had some measure of compassion for people at the very beginning of the pandemic. These are just basic human needs that a decent society provides its people."
A small step to extend support was on the table in Congress with the Biden administration's Build Back Better Plan. The version that passed the House included $170 billion to create more affordable housing, rental assistance or housing vouchers.
Those measures were removed from the final bill.
"We need to reinstate the original ask in the Build Back Better Plan for housing funding at the very least," DiPietro said, as an effort to address child homelessness and homelessness as a whole.
"Budgets are moral documents. We need to look at where we're putting our money and right now it's not into housing. Until we do, you will see more kids and families living in cars and living on the street."
Identifying child homelessness
Homelessness among school-age children is at the forefront of this discussion because there are mechanisms in place to observe and report it. Data on homelessness among younger children and infants is more scarce.
Schoolhouse Connection and Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan conducted a study across 20 states last year that found more than 311,000 children under age 3 were experiencing homelessness.
"Everything about their existence, homelessness disrupts," Duffield said. "Students tell us school is the most stable place in their life. It's a place where they can have an identity that's not just being homeless."
In the last 15 years, student homelessness has increased by about 90%, from about 680,000 in 2008 to more than 1.1 million in the 2020-21 school year. This includes students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.
Pre-COVID-19 data shows that homelessness among students decreased during the pandemic, down from about 1.4 million. But experts say that data can be misleading. The pandemic introduced significant challenges to surveying because many students were not in the classroom.
Schoolteachers and other employees are trained to identify and report homelessness among students under the federal McKinney-Vento Act.
A student is considered homeless if they lack fixed housing. This includes situations where families are doubled-up in a residence, living in a hotel or in a campground, as well as families in overnight shelters.
However, many students are not identified for various reasons, DiPietro said. Some parents will work to conceal their living situation out of fear that their children will be taken away. Children also do what they can to fit in at school. In some cases, they may not be enrolled in school at all.
"We really feel there has not been a decline," DiPietro said. "The circumstances that produce homelessness certainly haven't changed in the United States. Schools are overwhelmed with responsibilities and the manifestations of failed policies."
Homelessness impacts students of all ages fairly evenly, according to the National Center for Homelessness. Other demographic factors show more prevalent disparities.
Differently-abled students and students with English as a second language are the two groups who most frequently experience homelessness. Hispanic and Latino students make up 39% of unhoused youth, followed by White students (26%) and Black students (24%).
Doubling-up with another family is the most common form of shelter, with more than 800,000 enrolled students living this way, according to the latest report. More than 119,000 students were living in shelters or transitional housing and about 49,475 were reported as having no shelter.
Impact on children
Homelessness negatively affects children in and out of the classroom. It can stunt their development, mentally and physically, while depriving them of the opportunity to succeed as adults.
In the classroom, students experiencing homelessness often find it difficult to engage, Duffield said. Their mind may be preoccupied with worrying about their parents and other siblings, where they will stay that night and how to meet their more immediate needs.
"The things that led to homelessness, they carry with them," she said. "All these things get in the way of an education."
Physical needs include things like hygiene products and access to bathrooms, glasses and medicines, clothes and food.
There are also emotional needs. One of the most basic emotional needs that is impacted by homelessness is the relationship between children and their parents, DiPietro said.
"We have increases in parents being reported for neglect only because they're working," she said. "The kids are left to take care of each other.
"If you are a child experiencing homelessness, all outcomes are stacked against you," she said. "These disparities that last a lifetime start in childhood."
Duffield agrees. She said a lack of a high school diploma or equivalent is the single greatest factor in being homeless as an adult.
Funding for affordable housing, homeless shelters and wraparound services are among the solutions advocates say lawmakers need to increase. There is also the need for affordable healthcare, as medical bills and health problems are among the many reasons people fall into poverty and become at risk for homelessness.
The federal government must also agree on a definition of homelessness that is consistent across all agencies. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Housing and Urban Development are two key agencies that provide relevant services, but they do not abide by the same definition. A key distinction is that HHS recognizes families that are doubled up as homeless, while HUD does not.
The definitions dictated by legislation. If the definitions were consistent and included a broader spectrum of homelessness, more people would qualify for assistance. Still, more funding would be needed to deliver those services to the people who qualify, DiPietro said.
The Schoolhouse Connection advocates for policies to assist homeless children at the state and federal level. Their efforts also focus on prenatal support. The group advocates extending the forms of relief that were in place during the pandemic.
Duffield said that only about 1 in 5 students were receiving assistance prior to the pandemic. With pandemic relief, about half of students received assistance.
They are also pushing for a consistent definition of homelessness to close support gaps. Ultimately, Duffield said, change will only come with increased government funding.
"There are glaring inequities and the divides are becoming even greater than they've ever been," she said. "Homelessness is the most visible manifestation of that and that's why schools have to have a lens on this."