Public Schools: Counting and Caring for Children Experiencing Homelessness

Schools have a critical role to play in the lives of children experiencing homelessness. Schools can help children experiencing homelessness by providing a sense of stability for part of their life when they are missing it at home. They can also help make sure these vulnerable children do not fall behind and that they have access to services available in their communities.

A total of 1,062,928 students experiencing homelessness were enrolled in public schools in the 2010-2011 school year. When families become homeless, the experience is traumatizing, especially for children. Research compiled by the National Center on Homeless Education indicates that children in families experiencing homelessness have higher rates of emotional problems than other children, which can affect their ability to perform well in school. In addition, children experiencing homelessness often change schools, and repeated changes of school can contribute to decreased academic achievement. The Department of Education's Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program (EHCY), authorized under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, supports efforts around the country to ensure that these children and youth continue to attend school and succeed academically.

The EHCY annual data collection summary was released in June. The overall total number of children experiencing homelessness enrolled in public schools remained fairly constant between the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 school years. However, in 2010-2011 for the first The U.S. Department of Education reported over 1 million students experiencing homelessness. 

A total of sixteen states and the District of Columbia saw increases of more than 20% in this population. This is a very concerning jump for these states. 

Over the last three years, there have been dramatic increases in the numbers of children with disabilities as well as the number with limited proficiency in English who are experiencing homelessness. The numbers of unaccompanied youth has also been steadily climbing over this period. Research suggests that homelessness can have long-lasting physiological, social, and academic effects on children.  Unaccompanied youth without a family network, children with disabilities, and those with limited English proficiency are especially vulnerable. 

Children who are doubled up make up 72% of the total number of children experiencing homelessness in public school. This number has been climbing as a proportion of the total over the last three years. Doubling up is often a precursor to stays at motels, emergency shelters, or even unsheltered homelessness.  It is often an overcrowded and precarious situation that strains relationships with friends and family.