The number of homeless students in the country’s classrooms has more than doubled since before the recession, according to recently released federal data. That’s an alarming trend, but a new report offers some hope: At least part of the increase, the authors say, is not because more students have become homeless, but because states have gotten better at identifying homeless students.
There were about 1.4 million homeless students nationwide in the 2013-14 school year, according to the Department of Education, twice as many as there were in the 2006-07 school year, when roughly 680,000 students were homeless.
“Homelessness is growing, and we do need to pay attention to that,” said Maripat Finigan, assistant director of external affairs for the independent, nonprofit Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness. “But on the other hand, states are getting better at identifying homeless students, which is the first step in helping them access the programs they need.”
The institute’s American Almanac of Family Homelessness, out Wednesday, includes an inaugural set of state rankings on overall family homelessness policy efforts and efforts specifically aimed at addressing homeless children’s educational needs.
“The idea is to provide people on a state and local level with a toolbox to be able to measure their progress, and to take that and go to the decision makers in their state to measure what’s successful and what are the different strategies they can try,” Finigan said.
The rankings are based on an array of indicators that range from the concrete, like the number of available rental units that are affordable for extremely low-income families, to the less so, like the number of policies that reduce homeless families’ barriers to accessing child care. Matthew Adams, the institute’s principal policy analyst, said that rather than try to measure the effectiveness of policies in each state, which can be hard to quantify, the goal of the report is to identify and compare the efforts being made by each state.
The report’s authors wanted to highlight certain policies that they think states can adopt without spending additional money, Adams said. For example, every state can develop its own eligibility rules on top of federal requirements for child care subsidies, and many require work participation. But unlike some states, Massachusetts counts looking for housing as work participation, thereby expanding eligibility — a policy that could serve as a model elsewhere.
The institute ranked Massachusetts highest on overall policy, but the state was 34th in the education-specific ranking. Alaska, conversely, ranked 42nd in overall homelessness policy but ranked best in education of homeless students.
That might seem counterintuitive. But Adams said we should expect some variation — just because a state gets high marks in some areas doesn’t mean it will perform well in all.
In the case of Massachusetts specifically, it ranked lower in the education category because it identifies a lower share of its extremely poor children as homeless than other states. Nationwide, 27.1 percent of extremely poor children were homeless during the 2012-13 school year. And the institute’s ranking assumes that those states that report significantly lower percentages of homeless students don’t actually have a lower share — but are likely just doing a poor job of identifying them.1
Adams conceded that ranking states based on assumptions isn’t ideal but said that it’s the best way to compare how well states are providing for homeless students given the limited available data.
Even though Alaska lags behind other states in some homelessness policy, its education system and local school districts have done a good job of doing precise reporting on homeless students, according to Scott Ciambor, the chair of the Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, a statewide organization that brings together nonprofit groups and social service agencies focused on homelessness. The report notes that most of the population is concentrated in small areas of the state, which is one reason it may be easier for Alaska to report accurate numbers than other states.
But he said the state still has a long way to go. “Alaska’s a young state, so in many communities, we’re starting from scratch” on creating initiatives to combat homelessness, Ciambor said. “It’s not figuring out where to focus, like if we just do a little bit more rental assistance, we’ll be set. We don’t have emergency shelter. We don’t have a strategy for veterans. How do you do all of this stuff at once?”
While the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness’s report stresses what states can learn from one another, Adams said its scope was limited in part because of a lack of usable and comparable data. He noted that for all its emphasis on education, the report couldn’t fully cover homelessness among college students. “We have no idea how many students are homeless on college campuses,” he said. “If you’re homeless, what happens on school breaks when the dorms close? We don’t know.” The institute also wanted to look at how homeless students perform on math, reading and science tests, but comparisons are difficult across states because each state has different standards for proficiency. “There’s a lot of shaky data out there and a lot of data that doesn’t exist, so we worked with the data we have.”