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Lost in the Masked Shuffle and Virtual Void: Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness Amidst the Pandemic

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By SchoolHouse Connection and Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan


In early August 2020, as educators prepared for an uncertain school year, we began to hear a worrying theme from school district homeless liaisons: numbers of identified homeless students were down – in some cases, significantly down – despite evidence of increased need.

We knew from the early days of the pandemic that the closure of school buildings made it much more difficult for educators to identify and stay in touch with children and youth experiencing homelessness. We also knew that distance learning created many additional barriers for children and youth who have no permanent home – students for whom school had been the safest, most stable place in their lives. What we did not know was the scale of the crisis.

In September and October of 2020, we surveyed local educational agency homeless liaisons, designated under federal law (the McKinney-Vento Act) to carry out specific responsibilities to ensure the identification, enrollment, and support of children and youth experiencing homelessness. We asked homeless education liaisons whether their numbers of identified homeless students were higher or lower than at the same time in the previous school year and by how much, and their perception of the reasons for these trends. We also asked liaisons to describe the greatest unmet needs of children and youth experiencing homelessness in their communities; whether their school districts were directing federal CARES Act education dollars to homeless students, and if so, how those funds were being used.

The survey results show a shocking drop in the number of children and youth experiencing homelessness who have been identified and supported by public schools in the fall of 2020, despite evidence of increased need during the pandemic. Liaisons also described significant unmet needs beyond access to education, and the failure of federal CARES Act dollars to reach some of the most vulnerable students – children and youth whose invisibility prevents them from being prioritized in policy and funding decisions.

Without a home and without school, these students are at risk for losses that could last a lifetime and increase their likelihood of experiencing homelessness as adults. Further, in light of the disproportionate numbers of students experiencing homelessness who are students of color, students with disabilities, and students who are English learners, the issue of student homelessness must be seen as an urgent civil rights issue and central to educational equity.

If our nation is to recover from the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism, we must increase outreach to and support for children, youth, and families experiencing homelessness through public schools and early childhood programs, and prioritize their education and well being in all public systems of care.

Key Findings

  1. An estimated 420,000 fewer children and youth experiencing homelessness have been identified and enrolled by schools so far this school year. The primary reason cited for lower homeless student numbers at the start of the 2020-21 school year was the inability to identify families/youth due to distance learning/school building closures. Therefore, the pandemic has significantly exacerbated the ongoing problem of under-identification and lack of services for homeless children and youth. Prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools were failing to identify an estimated 1 million homeless children and youth. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased this number; as a result, as many as 1.4 million homeless K-12 children may be unidentified and unsupported by their schools.
  2. While overall homeless student identification and enrollment is down, the number of children and youth experiencing homelessness has likely increased due to the economic crisis. Some school districts did report higher numbers of homeless students at the start of the 2020 school year. Information from those school districts provides valuable information about the likely increases in homelessness across the nation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Data from those schools indicates that job loss due to COVID-19 was the most frequently cited reason for increases in homelessness among K-12 children and youth.
  3. Children and youth experiencing homelessness face significant unmet needs in their communities. Lack of internet, shelter/housing, food, and child care were the top needs described by school districts.
  4. Federal education relief funds are not reaching homeless families, children, and youth. Only 18% of respondents indicated that federal coronavirus relief education funding provided by the CARES Act is being used to meet the needs of students experiencing homelessness.

Policy Recommendations

The full report includes recommendations for Congress, state and local educational agencies, relief agencies, and philanthropy.

Download PDF of full report