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New policy brief from Wayne State University, Poverty Solutions reveals Detroit schools under-identify homeless students

Release courtesy of Wayne State University College of Education’s Detroit Partnership for Education Equity & Research

DETROIT – A recent study conducted by the Wayne State University College of Education’s Detroit Partnership for Education Equity & Research (Detroit PEER) found that students experiencing homelessness and housing instability are severely under-identified by Detroit schools. The study found that between 11-16% of Detroit students faced homelessness or housing instability in 2021-22, but as many as three in four of these students were not identified by their schools as homeless.

The study, conducted in partnership with researchers at Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan and the College of Education at Michigan State University, noted three main factors that contribute to the under-identification of students who experience homelessness and housing instability:

  • awareness about resources and rights related to student homelessness,
  • parent trust in discussing housing challenges with schools, and
  • school follow-through when parents do share their housing situations.

Many parents interviewed during the study were unaware of their rights and the resources available to them. They also feared social stigma and potential negative consequences for their children if their housing situation became known.

“Identifying and supporting students experiencing homelessness is crucial for their success in school,” said Sarah Winchell Lenhoff, associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Wayne State University and director of Detroit PEER. “Housing instability is a major contributor to chronic absenteeism in Detroit and can have negative academic and social effects. When schools provide additional resources and support, they can help alleviate these effects by providing transportation and resources for families.”

A center supported by the Wayne State University College of Education and external funders, the Detroit Partnership for Education Equity & Research conducts collaborative, community-centered, and equity-focused research on issues that affect academic, behavioral, and socio-emotional outcomes of public school students in Detroit. Researchers seek to contribute new knowledge to academic scholarship while also providing educators, practitioners, and policymakers with evidence-based research they can use to make informed decisions. This study was funded by the Michigan Department of Education.

Related: Poverty Solutions’ homelessness agenda

According to the study’s findings, Detroit schools identified only 4% of students as experiencing homelessness in the 2021-22 school year, despite estimates suggesting that at least 11% of students were eligible for services under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which requires schools to identify homeless students and ensure they have equal opportunities to succeed in education. Researchers also found differences in the identification of students between Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) and charter schools. DPSCD identified about 29% of their students who experienced homelessness or housing instability, while Detroit charter schools identified only about 16% of their students in similar situations. This discrepancy may be the result of DPSCD’s recent increased investment in identifying and supporting homeless students.

To increase the identification of students facing housing instability, researchers recommend that Detroit schools strengthen relationships with parents and improve communication about the availability of services. Some strategies include providing information about available resources during school registration and enrollment, ensuring that families know they qualify for support if they lack a stable residence and implementing surveys to check students’ housing status at multiple points throughout the year instead of just during enrollment. In addition, it is essential for all staff members to understand the resources and services available under the McKinney-Vento Act and how to connect students to them.

“These findings raise concerns about the education of homeless students in Detroit and highlight the need for immediate action,” said Lenhoff. “Detroit schools must prioritize identifying and supporting these vulnerable students to ensure they have an equal opportunity to succeed academically.”


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