By on 10.12.21 in Education

The population of homeless students enrolled in public school districts nationwide decreased 4% between the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years, according to The National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE) at UNC-Greensboro, which recently released their annual look at children experiencing homelessness and attending public school. Nationally, there were 1,384,301 homeless youth enrolled in public school in the 2018-19 school year.

However, things looked very different in North Carolina.

In 2017-18, there were an estimated 28,903 public school students in North Carolina who experienced homelessness over the course of the school year. During the 2018-2019 academic year, this number increased to 34,765 public school students in North Carolina experiencing homelessness – an increase of 9% percent over the previous school year, according to data from the United States Interagency on Homelessness.

The federal definition of homelessness includes those who lack a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” This includes individuals and families who are living with others due to a loss of housing, often referred to as “doubling up.” Additionally, individuals living in shelters, motels, hotels, trailer parks or campgrounds in the absence of other consistent housing options may also be considered homeless. Of the 34,765 homeless public school students in North Carolina experiencing homelessness in the 2018-2019 school year 1,211 students were unsheltered, 3,334 lived in shelters, 4,986 lived in hotels or motels, and 25,234 were doubled up. 

In a previous blog post, we focused on the prevalence of homeless students in the state at a critical point along the education continuum—high school graduation – for the 2018-19 school year.

The graduation rate for NC among all students was 87%, whereas the homeless student graduation rate then was 69%. Two school years later, the data for 2020-21 shows that again, the NC graduation rate overall was  87% and the homeless student graduation rate was 69%. Homeless students have one of the lowest graduation rates among all demographic groups, as shown below: 

Additionally, research has documented that students’ experiencing homelessness face additional challenges because it is difficult to identify them, which has been compounded by COVID-19's disruption on education.

An October 2020 report by researchers at Bellwether Education Partners estimated that 3 million students nationwide dropped out of formal education during the early weeks of the pandemic. At the same time, we see a shrinking in the number of identified homeless students. A survey by Poverty Solutions and SchoolHouse Connection found a 28% decrease in identified homeless students nationwide from Fall 2019 to Fall 2020.

What could explain this decrease? One answer may be access to the Internet. A 2019 study conducted by the NC Broadband Infrastructure Office and the Friday Institute found10% of K-12 households in NC did not have internet access at home. As students transitioned into a virtual school environment across the state in 2020, this may have limited school access further to the homeless student population. This underscores the need for additional funding to assist this particular student population.

Federal COVID-19 assistance for homeless students  

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, also known as the COVID-19 stimulus package, appropriated nearly $800 million dollars to be administered by the Department of Education to support the Homeless Children and Youth program (ARP- EHCY). In April, $200 million of these funds were released to states. Accompanying the announcement, the Department released a letter urging states to use these funds to identify homeless students and provide wraparound services needed by this group as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. States and school districts received the remaining $600 million prior to the beginning of the 2021-22 school year.

The McKinney-Vento Act provides protections for homeless youth, ensuring their ability to attend school, as well as addressing issues such as access and privacy. Local liaisons implement the EHCY program in several ways – identifying homeless children and youth and linking them to resources including health services and preschool. In addition, the EHCY program requires school district homeless liaisons to guarantee that unaccompanied homeless youth are informed of their status as independent students for the FAFSA and receive assistance to verify their homelessness – an important step for students approaching high school graduation.  

For more information on all the ways local liaisons assist North Carolina children and youth, visit the North Carolina Homeless Education Program. The additional funding provided through the American Rescue Plan Act will assist local liaisons in identifying and providing resources to this particularly vulnerable population. 


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