Before the COVID-19 outbreak, public schools identified 1.5 million children and youth experiencing homelessness. Tom*, a high school senior in York County, PA, was one of them.
Like many homeless students, Tom struggled with the traumatic events that led to his homelessness—in his case, his mother’s drug addiction and her abusive boyfriend—as well as the daily challenges of finding food and a safe place to sleep. School was the only stable place in his life—a place where, thanks to the Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) program, his basic needs were met and supportive adults helped him stay on track to graduate.
And then, schools closed.
Tom found a temporary place to stay at a friend’s house, but once the stay-at-home order went into effect, he was asked to leave because of the stress of everyone being home all day in close proximity. At age 17, he is too young to stay in a motel room on his own, and there is no available space at the local shelter. Without other options, Tom now lives in his car. He found work in a convenience store, but needs to find a way to do his schoolwork.
Across the nation, COVID-19 has deepened the trauma and educational disruption of homelessness for millions of students like Tom. They move frequently, cannot shelter in place or self-isolate, and are often without WiFi, devices, or a quiet, stable environment conducive to distance learning. Like Tom, many are left to navigate homelessness without parents.
Even through dire circumstances, children and youth who are homeless can cope, thrive, and succeed as adults through the support of our education system. A regional homeless education coordinator visits Tom three times a week, bringing food and hygiene items. She’s arranged for him to shower at the local shelter and supplies a hotspot for schoolwork. It’s all part of the outreach she conducts to hundreds of children, youth and families through the EHCY program.
There’s No Guarantee of Funding
Despite the critical support the EHCY program provides to youth and families, the recent COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress failed to direct funds to the program. It simply gave states grants to spend on a range of COVID-19 needs. With competing demands, there is no guarantee that states will direct their grants to the proven programs that are laser-focused on supporting our least visible and most vulnerable children and youth.
Among its wide range of supports and protections, EHCY provides the only trained professionals who know how to keep in touch with homeless children and youth and what they need to survive and obtain the education that is their best hope of escaping homelessness as adults.
York County is not the only community where educators are working tirelessly to ensure students like Tom don’t fall through the cracks. In Phoenix and Spokane, WA, homeless education coordinators have distributed informational posters to campgrounds, motels and other areas where families and youth might seek shelter. In San Antonio, school social workers are implementing systems to identify newly homeless students. Nationwide, there are efforts to expand digital access through pre-paid phones, devices and hotspots; deliver food, hygiene and educational supplies; and help families access motel vouchers and other means of shelter.
But ultimately, these efforts cannot be sustained without greater financial support. Even before the pandemic, many school districts struggled to provide for students who were homeless. Now, local agencies and schools are relying on federal support more than ever to aid the increasing numbers of students in need as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
At every level of leadership—local, state, and federal—we must prioritize the health, safety and education needs of our most vulnerable students. During this time of immense upheaval it is critical to help prevent them from experiencing homelessness into adulthood.
Schools have always been the primary safety net for students who are homeless. Now, when risks of illness and homelessness are even higher, their role is more important than ever—and we must ensure they are as strongly equipped as possible to support the millions of children and youth who are counting on them.