(Photo: Elvert Barnes/Flickr)

In Class by Day, on the Streets at Night: Record Number of U.S. Students Are Homeless

Experts say the boom reflects a troubling trend—for the economy as well as society—that may not reverse anytime soon.
Sep 25, 2014· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

This week the U.S. Department of Education announced that the nation’s grade-school population has reached a disturbing milestone, triggered in part by the Great Recession of 2008. But some experts say the problem has deeper roots and is a troubling sign for the economy.

The new data released this week by the DOE’s National Center for Homeless Education shows that the population of homeless schoolchildren in the U.S. reached a record 1.3 million kids during the 2012–13 school year. That’s an 8 percent increase over the previous year and 85 percent higher than before the recession.

Additionally, the data showed that more than 76,000 students were living on their own without stable housing, including runaways and children whose parents weren’t around for their day-to-day care.

While the numbers are eye-opening, child welfare advocates say it’s probably an undercount.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development definition of “homelessness”—on which federal funds depend—doesn’t include kids who are “doubled up” and living with friends, relatives, or another family, or young people in temporary housing, such as a motel or a shelter. It also doesn’t count infants or children too young to attend school, or older youths who have dropped out and are no longer enrolled.

“A record number of homeless students means a record number of our children being exposed to sexual trafficking, abuse, hunger, and denial of their basic needs,” Bruce Lesley, president of the First Focus Campaign for Children, said in a joint statement with three other homeless-child agencies. “The new data means that a record number of kids in our schools and communities are spending restless nights in bedbug-infested motels and falling more behind in school by the day because they’re too tired and hungry to concentrate.”

Other child advocates blame the lack of affordable housing and are calling on the government to pass legislation that would allow doubled-up kids and those not in school to qualify for federal assistance through schools.

“Public schools are the only universal safety net for these children and youth—a place where they can obtain basic services and the education that is necessary to escape poverty as adults,” said Barbara Duffield, director of policy and programs for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

Most analysts and child welfare advocates say the problem stems largely from the housing crash, when more than 7 million families lost their homes to foreclosure. But Ralph da Costa Nunez, president of the Institute of Child Poverty and Homelessness, said children have been the invisible face of homelessness for the last three decades.

“I’m not surprised. It’s a new high, and it’ll probably grow next year,” he said. “This is the fastest-growing segment” of the nation’s homeless population, he added.

The survey data shows that students who are homeless or without stable housing are more likely than their peers to miss school, perform poorly on classwork and standardized assessment tests, repeat a grade, and quit school. Just 52 percent of homeless kids in grades 3–12 are proficient in reading, only half are able to read and write at grade level, and only 24 percent are proficient in science.

At the same time, homeless students have higher rates of learning and emotional disabilities, many of them report having been physically abused, and most of them say one or both parents abuse alcohol or drugs, advocates say.

The skyrocketing homeless-student population is not just a social crisis but an economic one as well.

The White House, quoting the Bureau of Labor Statistics, has declared that education is a “prerequisite” for employment. The 30 fastest-growing occupations all require some college education, and most high-wage jobs that can lift people out of poverty will require a postsecondary degree just to apply. The U.S. has fallen well behind its global competitors in the number of college graduates it produces, and more than 60 percent of low-income kids who enroll in college don’t make it to graduation day.

Without an education, analysts say, homeless students are likely to fall through the cracks of an increasingly thin social services net and plunge deeper into poverty.

Nunez noted that the word “homeless” didn’t exist until the 1980s; before then, “we called them hobos or bums, people down on their luck, sleeping on the street.”

“No one knows that the typical homeless person is 11 years old,” Nunez said. “These children aren’t on the streets, and they aren’t visible,” so society neglects them. That includes families living in shelters—“Main Street for the poor,” he said.

“This is the product of neglect of social programs,” Nunez said. He believes the only way to break an inevitable cycle of poverty is to rebuild preschool, after-school, tutoring, and family support programs, and to meet the poor where they are.

Otherwise, “we have notched down a whole generation” from middle- and working-class to homeless and poor, he said. Without an education, “they’re going to have trouble coming back up.”