While COVID-19 has disrupted the lives of all students and their families, those experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity are particularly vulnerable. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, public schools identified 1.4 million homeless children and youth in P-12, and the U.S. Department of Education estimated that another 1.3 million children under 6 experienced homelessness. Additionally, nearly 2.6 million families with children are extremely rent-burdened and their income is at or below the poverty line.

Every month, millions of families are stressed whether they can make enough to pay the rent to keep a roof over their heads. To help, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) issued an order halting residential evictions in September 2020, with the hope of providing housing stability to those most affected by COVID-19. However, a recent decision from the Supreme Court in August 2021 ends the pandemic-related moratorium on evictions. To learn more about what this decision means for students, their families, and their long-term well-being, we sat down with Barbara Duffield, Executive Director of SchoolHouse Connection, to learn more.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, how many students across the United States were experiencing homelessness? Which students are most likely to experience homelessness?

We cannot forget that homelessness is an indicator of so many other vulnerabilities, gaps in our systems, and traumas that a child might experience. Homelessness is not an identity, but an experience that vulnerable student groups face at disproportionate rates. Students experiencing homelessness are disproportionately students of color, students with disabilities and English learners. High school students who experience homelessness are more likely to be pregnant or parents, and also more likely to be LGBTQ+. Homelessness is equally prevalent in rural, suburban, and urban areas. Most students experiencing homelessness are staying with other people temporarily due to lack of alternatives when they are first identified by public schools.

How have those numbers changed during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Last fall, together with the University of Michigan, we conducted a national survey that showed a 28% decrease in the numbers of children and youth who identified as homeless by public schools, compared to fall 2019 — a drop of about 420,000 students. The primary reason cited for this decrease was challenges identifying homelessness during virtual learning: Without the eyes and ears of educators, and without the ability to have in-person confidential conversations with trusted school staff, many school districts reported lower numbers. This does not mean, however, that homelessness actually decreased during the pandemic — especially with indicators of increased need (such as requests for food, clothing, and other basic needs assistance) rising as schools return to in-person learning. We will repeat our survey with U-M later this fall.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected students experiencing homelessness? What are some of the barriers they face?

COVID-19 has only exacerbated barriers that students who are homeless face in trying to access and obtain education. School district homeless liaisons designated under the McKinney-Vento Act (staff who are responsible for identifying and supporting children and youth experiencing homelessness) report more mobility, more fear, more trauma, and more barriers to basic needs. Families and youth who were staying with others (“doubled-up” or “couch-surfing”) have been kicked out more frequently due to fear of or being sick with COVID-19, so they move between couches, cars, motels, and unsheltered situations.

There is reduced shelter capacity, and more fear of congregate shelter. Further, students experiencing homelessness often lack access to devices and the internet, and even a place to charge devices. Lack of transportation is a tremendous challenge that limits students’ ability to access food, school-based programs, child care, employment, and other services. Liaisons have also reported more unaccompanied youth who are homeless and navigating these challenges without a parent or guardian, and who are frequently working while attempting to go to school.

All of these barriers are alarming when you factor in that not completing high school is the greatest single risk factor for homelessness as a young person. But amid these heightened challenges, we did see an unprecedented investment in education for children, youth, and families experiencing homelessness amid COVID-19 in the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARP). Of the $125 billion dedicated to K-12 education, ARP dedicated $800 million to the identification, enrollment, and school success of children and youth experiencing homelessness. While a step forward, this is just the tip of the iceberg of what’s needed to support our most vulnerable students.

What barriers do vulnerable students and families face in securing stable housing?

Nationwide, there is a severe shortage of affordable housing. Therefore, once a family or youth is homeless, they are competing for a very limited supply of safe, stable, affordable housing. Even if a family receives a housing voucher, it doesn’t mean they can find an available unit or a landlord willing to take it. A history of evictions, poor credit, disability, and lack of stable adequate employment or income are barriers to securing housing — as well as ongoing systemic racial discrimination. Furthermore, unaccompanied youth under age 18 often can’t sign a lease on their own, depending on state law.

Public policy contributes to these barriers in numerous ways, including who is eligible for housing and homeless assistance: most students identified as homeless by public schools do not meet the definition of homelessness used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which limits their access to housing resources. The systems and processes for accessing housing and homeless assistance can be complex, which is particularly problematic for families and youth in crisis, who are dealing with many traumas and simply trying to survive. Finally, short-term housing assistance creates anxiety for families who have no way to maintain their housing once the assistance runs out.

How did the CDC’s 2020 eviction moratorium help prevent homelessness among students, particularly students of color? Did the moratorium also help students currently experiencing homelessness and their families?

According to Eviction Lab, the CDC moratorium reduced eviction filings by more than half and prevented 1.55 million eviction filings nationwide. Prior to the pandemic, Black renters received a disproportionate share of all eviction filings and continued to be over-represented during the CDC moratorium period, receiving 33% of filings. Not all locales implemented the CDC moratorium fully, and very few states have enacted their own moratoria. Eviction Lab’s analysis concludes that while the moratorium helped reduce the threat of displacement, it did nothing to address underlying racial disparities in eviction rates, nor the concentration of eviction in hard-hit neighborhoods. Some families and youth experiencing homelessness and staying with other households may have been protected from displacement because the households with whom they were staying were protected. However, most families and youth experiencing homelessness stay with other people, or in motels, and therefore, were not protected by the CDC moratorium.

What does the eviction moratorium ending mean for students and their families and how does it affect student learning?

While it may take a while for the backlog of eviction cases to result in increased homelessness, ending the eviction moratoria is creating greater anxiety among families, students, and educators. According to school district homeless liaisons interviewed as part of our “Learning from Liaisons” webinar series, significant displacement is already occurring: Leases are not being renewed; landlords are encouraging families to leave in exchange for not evicting them; and families who fear eviction are leaving before they can be evicted. The impact of eviction on children and families is well documented, as is the impact of homelessness: from lower birth weight, to increased acute and chronic health problems, and lower attendance, academic achievement, and graduation rates. Stability is the foundation of healthy childhood development and learning — eviction, displacement, and homelessness wreak havoc on that foundation. And amid a pandemic, eviction and homelessness also contribute to higher rates of COVID-19 transmission and illness. A vicious cycle is thus created: eviction, displacement, and homelessness create barriers to education, yet education is imperative to breaking the cycle of homelessness and poverty. Again, lack of a high school degree or GED is the single greatest risk factor for homelessness as a young adult.

What can state, district, and school leaders do to help students and their families who are at risk of being homeless due to evictions, and those who are currently experiencing homelessness?

By virtue of their role and legal duties, school district homeless liaisons are usually the most knowledgeable point people for all matters relating to housing and homelessness at the local level, while State Coordinators for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth are the best point of contacts within state education agencies. State, district, and local leaders should connect with these educators to learn about state and local trends, challenges, and available resources. To help families at risk of or facing eviction, local liaisons are connecting with eviction courts, legal aid, housing agencies, and realtors; they are also engaged in public awareness campaigns to help families understand their legal recourse, and get connected to emergency rent relief and utility assistance. It is vital that schools be a part of emergency rental assistance distribution, either directly or indirectly, which may mean forging new partnerships, and placing housing and resource navigators within schools (whether funded through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, or through ARP ESSER or ARP HCY).
Families and youth who are experiencing homelessness need these same services, as well as emergency shelter options, reliable and consistent transportation, basic needs, counseling, credit recovery and accrual, help with FAFSA completion, and help accessing and participating in available early childhood programs. ESSER directs states and districts to use funds for children and youth experiencing homelessness, and ARP HCY provides dedicated funding for these students.

We’ve compiled strategies for using ARP funds to meet needs, and will continue to highlight innovations as the school year continues.

If you are interested in learning more, you can attend SchoolHouse Connection’s Learning from Liaisons Series. Register for an upcoming session here.