The COVID-19 pandemic made an already challenging task for school staff even more difficult: how to identify which students do not currently have a stable place to live and connect them with resources to ensure they’re able to fully participate in school.
Prior research by Poverty Solutions Senior Research Associate Jennifer Erb-Downward, who specializes in family homelessness, had already identified an undercount of students experiencing homelessness across Michigan, and especially in Detroit. During the pandemic, Erb-Downward’s work brought new attention to this issue and motivated an $800 million federal investment in services for students without stable housing.
Since she started at Poverty Solutions in 2017, Erb-Downward has built relationships with homelessness working groups in Detroit and school homeless liaisons from across the state while looking for opportunities to connect service providers in different sectors around common goals related to addressing homelessness.
When schools abruptly closed in 2020 and shifted to virtual learning, Erb-Downward partnered with SchoolHouse Connection, a national nonprofit working to overcome homelessness through education, to listen to school staff about their efforts to reach students experiencing homelessness during the pandemic.
Their survey of school homeless liaisons across the country found schools were identifying an estimated 420,000 fewer students experiencing homelessness in school year 2020-21 than had been identified prior to the pandemic.
“Failing to identify when students experience homelessness deprives children of their legal rights to an equal education. Under-identification of homeless students also means educators and schools don’t have essential information about the barriers that children and their families may face,” Erb-Downward said.
Meanwhile, Erb-Downward continued work on a databook outlining the connections between homelessness in Michigan and chronic absenteeism, the number of midyear school transfers, graduation and dropout rates, school discipline rates, access to public assistance, and likelihood of entering the foster care system. The databook revealed homelessness has a lasting impact on educational outcomes for K-12 students, and up to 88% of Detroit children experiencing homelessness are not identified by their schools.
A bipartisan group of U.S. senators cited findings from the homeless liaison survey with SchoolHouse Connection in a letter to the U.S. Department of Education about implementing the $800 million designated in the American Rescue Plan Act for identifying and supporting students experiencing homelessness.
Erb-Downward also discussed her research at a U.S. House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education hearing in May 2021 on strengthening connections with students experiencing homelessness and children in foster care.
The databook on student homelessness in Michigan, released in 2021 after conducting three years’ worth of analyses, garnered media coverage from news outlets in Detroit and parts of rural northern Michigan with high rates of student homelessness. Poverty Solutions partnered with Chalkbeat Detroit to host a virtual panel discussion on the findings that brought together Detroit educators, service providers, and people with lived experience with housing instability to discuss how schools can better identify and support students experiencing homelessness.
Since Erb-Downward first identified an undercount of students experiencing homelessness in Detroit in 2018, the city’s shelter system and school districts have implemented a referral system to make sure schools are aware when one of their students enters a shelter. Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) has also strengthened its systems of identification and support for students experiencing homelessness under the leadership of the Assistant Director for Homeless and Foster Care Services Michelle Parker. All DPSCD school buildings now have a homelessness point of contact to assist in identification and support of students experiencing housing instability, and Parker has developed partnerships with groups ranging from school Information Technology staff to city police to shelter and drop-in center supports.
Also, state lawmakers recently introduced a package of school discipline reform bills that would require schools to consider students’ history of homelessness in discipline decisions—a recommendation informed by feedback on Erb-Downward’s research findings from community advocates who work with families whose students are facing school discipline action.
In recent years, identification of students experiencing homelessness has increased by more than 200% at DPSCD. The district created a basic needs pantry to support students and their families and now asks all students in third through 12th grade whether they have experienced housing instability as part of a mental health screening. Erb-Downward recently mapped school discipline and homelessness data at the school district level to provide local stakeholders across the state with the information they need to consider school discipline reform that takes into account students’ history of homelessness.
On a national scale, Erb-Downward’s partnership with SchoolHouse Connection will turn to assessing current trends in identifying students experiencing homelessness as the pandemic continues. This work will inform policy recommendations and ongoing efforts by schools and service providers to evaluate what’s working in addressing student homelessness and identify opportunities to improve available resources.