It shouldn't be this hard for kids to grow and thrive in the world's richest, most powerful nation, but the U.S. Department of Education has identified 1.3 million homeless students enrolled by preschools and K-12 schools in the 2012-2013 school year and that number grew by 8 percent from the prior year. In fact, the number of homeless children in public schools has increased by 85 percent since the beginning of the recession, which was driven in large part due to mortgage foreclosures.
The law defines homeless children as those who lack "a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence," including those:
- doubled up due to loss of housing or economic hardship;
- living in motels, trailer parks or campgrounds;
- living in emergency or transitional shelters;
- abandoned in hospitals;
- awaiting foster care placement; and,
- living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations.
These vulnerable children are often the victims of violence, abuse, neglect, trauma, and sexual exploitation. According to Paul Kosowsky, Vice President of Program Operations at Youth Continuum in Greater Hartford, Connecticut:
"Unlike adults who can often be diverted from care, youth require urgent access to care and support. These youth are survivors, but not without a great deal of damage to them along the way. The statistic regarding homeless youth to increased risks of sexual assault, drug use, HIV/AIDS, prostitution, pregnancy, and incarceration, as well as lower graduation and employment rates, clearly indicate that these young people are not being given the opportunity for a bright, productive future that we hold out to young people in America."
Adds Jennifer Brown of the Denver Post, "Children who are homeless are eight times more likely to suffer abuse and neglect than other children."
This is a disaster for children.
Recognizing this, Congress passed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act, which seeks to "ensure that each child of a homeless individual and each homeless youth has equal access to the same free, appropriate public education, including a public preschool education, as provided to other children and youths."
Among other things, the law requires that "to the extent feasible, keep a homeless child or youth in the school of origin, except when doing so is contrary to the wishes of the child's or youth's parent or guardian." The goal is to provide children with stability and supports necessary to help homeless children receive an education.
Unfortunately, for the 1.3 million homeless students that have been identified across the country, the federal government only provides $61.6 million, or less than $50 per child, in support to implement the law's Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) program in FY 2013. In Colorado, that number is just $28 per student.
"Due to the low funding levels," the National Network for Youth points out, "fewer than one in five school districts in the United States are touched by EHCY money."
The struggles of these students are real. Fortunately, there have been a couple of recent investigative reports by the Denver Post and Sports Illustrated that have highlighted real stories of tragedy and hardship as families with children trying to child out of poverty and homelessness. The S.I. story highlights the plight of 17 year-old Lawrence Mattison, a high school running back going to school near San Antonio, Texas, who felt it was necessary to participate in cage fights three nights a week in order to survive.
Unfortunately, while education funding is horribly inadequate, housing supports are often completely non-existent. In fact, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has a far more narrow and restrictive definition of homelessness that does not count children and youth that are identified as homeless by schools, domestic violence shelters, or runaway and homeless youth programs.
As a result, even though schools, and state and local governments have determined that many of those children are desperately in need of help, First Focus's Cara Baldari says:
"Due to HUD's narrower definition of homelessness, homeless students are often not able to access HUD services such as transitional housing and other wraparound services because HUD's current definition of homelessness excludes children, youth, and families who are living in motels or temporarily with others because they have nowhere else to go."
HUD does not even count most homeless children in their statistics because they exclude most children who are not living in shelters or on the streets. The HUD statistics allow the agency to claim it is making progress on reducing child homelessness when the opposite is true, but worse, HUD's definition fails to help hundreds of thousands of children in need. In fact, a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that HUD's definition exacerbates problems for kids. According to Baldari:
"...homeless student liaisons reported that the differing definitions of homelessness used by the Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development posed a barrier to serving homeless students. This difference in definitions often prevented liaisons from collaborating with other service providers to address student needs and any obstacles they face."
Adds Barbara Duffield, Director of Policy and Programs for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth:
"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. Yet without access to HUD homeless assistance, schools struggle to stabilize the education and the lives of homeless children and youth."
To address these problems, bipartisan legislation (S. 2653 and H.R. 5186, the "Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2014") has been introduced in Congress by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Rob Portman (R-OH) and Congressmen Steve Stivers (R-OH) and George Miller (D-CA) to eliminate the inconsistent, more narrow, and restrictive federal definition of homelessness at HUD and to tear down the federal bureaucratic barriers, roadblocks, and red tape that prevent the vast majority of our nation's homeless children and youth from being eligible to receive the help and housing supports they need.
Without this change and much needed increases in funding for both the McKinney-Vento education and housing programs, the status quo for the 1.3 million homeless children in our country is often tragic. According to Jeremy Rosen, Director of Advocacy at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty:
"It is shocking and sobering that in a country this wealthy we have so many students who lack a place to live. Unfortunately, current federal homelessness policy makes it harder for children, youth, and families to leave homelessness. Congress should pass the Homeless Children and Youth Act so that we can see these numbers begin to decline."
And yet, incredibly, there are some who defend the HUD definition, urge retaining the status quo that fails over a million children, and argue that children are not as worthy of receiving the same supports that chronically homeless adults currently receive. However, according to a survey by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) of 656 youth ages 14-21 in 11 cities, an astounding "60.8 percent of homeless youths have been raped, beaten up, robbed or otherwise assaulted." And, according to the survey, "For every additional month spent homeless, the likelihood of being victimized while homeless increased by 3 percent."
Explaining why the status quo is simply unacceptable and why there is urgency for legislative action, Ruth White, Executive Director of the National Center for Housing & Child Welfare says:
"This thoughtful legislation simply restores HUD to its proper role of helping communities prevent and end homelessness for all vulnerable community members. After a decade's worth of harmful, Washington-driven homeless policy that stripped funding from family, domestic violence, and youth shelters and services, the HCYA comes not a day too soon."
As a result, please contact your Member of Congress and Senators to urge them to support and cosponsor the "Homeless Children and Youth Act" (HCYA). Although the legislation is bipartisan, we still have some important work to do to overcome the gridlock in Congress that even blocks even the most simple and non-controversial bills.
In addition, we are urging HUD Secretary Julián Castro to work to address the horrible problems that the current HUD definition of homelessness is causing children across the country and hope he will support passage of HCYA. As former Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said in a recent Governing article:
"...this is not a problem that can be swept under a rug. It's not likely to go away anytime soon and, since 2008, the problem appears to be getting worse. Larger cities are shouldering a disproportionate share of the burden. While these cities are doing a good job of providing shelter to homeless families with children, more than shelter is needed. The greater challenge is whether the emotional effects and the educational challenges homeless children face can be addressed sufficiently to provide hope for a better life. It's quite possible that some of our future leaders are today's 'backpack kids.'"