Homeless students: A growing and underserved population

WHEN MANY hear the word "homeless," they envision a man in tattered clothes asleep on a bench or a woman asking for money on the roadside. But to view homelessness this way is to approach the issue with tunnel vision.

Contrary to common misconceptions, families with children make up more than one-third of our nation’s homeless population. Yet this incredibly vulnerable group is missing from most conversations about homelessness.

We have an obligation to better understand this population, so we can educate one another on this mounting crisis and develop evidence-based solutions to confront this crisis right here in Savannah and across the country.

The Savannah-Chatham County Public School System (SCCPSS) recently reported that it identified 1,001 homeless students in school year 2017–18. That number represents a staggering 30 percent increase from the previous school year.

Across the state of Georgia, approximately three-quarters of homeless students are living temporarily with friends or family, frequently in overcrowded conditions.

But these doubled-up families remain hidden largely because the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) only considers individuals to be homeless if they are living in shelter or on the streets. Contrary to HUD, the U.S. Department of Education considers any student lacking a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence as homeless.

This definition includes those captured by HUD, as well as those living doubled-up or in hotels. While still considered an undercount, this more inclusive definition of homelessness offers a more accurate picture of this vulnerable population.

Aside from the 72 percent of homeless families that are living doubled up, one in every six homeless families in Georgia pays out of pocket for a hotel room, and one in every 11 lives in a homeless shelter.

Two percent of Georgia’s homeless students sleep in a place not meant for human habitation, such as a car or a park.

Students living doubled up often appear like everyone else and it can be extremely difficult for school districts to identify them. But for these students, the stress and instability of constantly moving from one household to the next has as substantial an impact on their education and well-being as it does for those living in a homeless shelter. These students deserve to be counted and supported as they navigate these traumatic experiences.

Just one episode of homelessness has been proven to significantly impact a student’s educational outcomes. Due to high mobility and frequent school transfers, as well as higher rates of chronic absenteeism, homeless students are less likely to score proficiently on state assessments than their stably-housed peers.

Of Chatham County’s homeless students in grades 3–8, just 9 percent scored proficiently in math, while 11 percent scored proficiently in reading— which means that these students are reaching basic educational proficiency approximately one-third as often as their housed peers in the District.

The federal government does provide some protections for students experiencing homelessness. The McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth Act (EHCY) stipulates that each state receives funds to ensure that every homeless student has access to the same free, appropriate public education as their housed peers. With these funds, states are able to provide competitive subgrants to school districts throughout the state.

Like many states, Georgia’s federal funding for homeless students has not kept pace with the increase in student homelessness.

From 2012–2016, Georgia received an increase of 10% in federal funding.

However, the state’s homeless student population increased by 16% over the same period of time, to a high of 38,474 students—that’s more than all students in SCCPSS combined.

Twenty-two percent of Georgia’s public school districts received EHCY subgrants in school year 2015–16.

Of the 159 districts that did not receive a subgrant, Chatham County had the second-largest homeless student population, behind only Monroe County. It is imperative that SCCPSS continue to identify homeless students and connect them with needed services, despite this lack of funding.

This month, hundreds will gather here in Savannah for the annual conference of the Georgia Alliance to End Homelessness. They will meet amid a crisis of increasing homelessness both here in Georgia and across the country. There are many factors driving this crisis, including a lack of affordable housing, stagnant wages, generational poverty, racism, and domestic violence.

Fact-based solutions locally-tailored to fit the distinct needs of each community’s homeless population are the only way forward.

We can all learn from the experiences of the over 1,000 homeless students in Savannah, the more than 38,000 homeless students across Georgia, and the estimated 1.3 million students nationwide who are currently homeless.

It falls on all of us to shine a light on these students, help them break the cycle of poverty, and show them we believe they matter.


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