This article is part of the “90 for All” series, which examines the challenges facing traditionally underserved students, particularly low-income and homeless students, English-language learners, students of color and students with disabilities.
The number of homeless students in the United States has grown dramatically, and the majority of them aren’t getting the support they need to graduate high school, a new report found.
Hidden in Plain Sight: Homeless Students in America’s Public Schools examines student homelessness through interviews and students with more than 200 young people who are or have been homeless. It also includes insights from state coordinators and local liaisons—the professionals federally mandated to support homeless students.
In the 2013-14 school year, more than 1.3 million homeless students lived in the U.S., a 7 percent increase from the 2012-2013 year and more than double the number found in 2006-2007.
While experts call for more resources and funding, the report also found that many homeless students either don’t know who they can turn to for help or don’t feel comfortable doing so.
Sixty-seven percent of students surveyed said they were uncomfortable talking with people at their school about their situation, and 61 percent said they were never connected with an outside organization for help. Only 25 percent said their schools did a good job helping them find housing.
The authors of the report, Civic Enterprises with Hart Research Associates, shared its findings with the public at the Capitol Visitor Center on June 13. The event also allowed students who have experienced homelessness and liaisons to provide their insights and recommendations.
Read what they had to say below.
Why Homeless Students Don’t Always Ask for Help
Today, the student panelists are all in college, and they’re scholars from the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAECY). But each of them knows what it’s like to be homeless.
Many of them said that stigma and shame played a role, although it wasn’t necessarily about their homelessness. “I'm not ashamed of being homeless,” one student said. “I never was. I was ashamed of having absent parents."
Overall, the student panelists said there were a number of reasons they didn’t feel comfortable asking someone for help.
For one, some of them didn’t even know they classified as homeless. “You consider someone being homeless as someone who lives on the streets, not us bouncing from house to house,” a student panelist said.
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, passed nearly 30 years ago, has a broad definition of children and youth homelessness. Any student who lives in a motel, trailer park, car or an emergency shelter classifies as homeless, as does a young person forced to stay with a relative or one awaiting foster care placement.
“There’s this idea that it’s a choice to talk about it,” the student continued. “When [being homeless] is your normal situation, it’s not something you think you need to talk about because you don’t know anything different.”
Other students said they worried about the consequences of telling someone. “I felt that it would impact my family too much.” He worried, “What if they take away my siblings? I would just rather not take that risk.”
Another student said someone did find out about her homelessness when she was younger, and she ended up in foster care as a result. After that experience, she learned to keep quiet. “It was just easier to be together as a family than to be split up. They’ve taken everything, so [family] is all you really have left.”
Finally, even if students did want to go to someone for help, they didn’t know who they could turn to or what resources were available. “Who do you talk to about this kind of thing?” one student asked. “You have the guidance counselor, but what can they really do?”
He advocated for a ‘representative of support,’ which many schools actually have. The McKinney-Vento Act requires states and districts to appoint state coordinators and district liaisons, people that connect homeless families to resources and help homeless students with school.
The problem is, students don’t always know about them.
One student on the panel said his school had a liaison, but he didn’t know about it. Since the word ‘homeless’ wasn’t in the person’s job description, he said it made the position feel hidden, adding to the stigma surrounding homelessness.
“It’s not just something that you don’t want to talk about,” he said. “It’s something no one wants to talk about.”
As for the liaisons and coordinators themselves, an overwhelming majority point to a lack of resources to do their jobs. Seventy-eight percent of liaisons said lack of funding is a major challenge to their work; 57 percent said lack of time, staff and resources; 36 percent said a lack of community awareness; 30 percent cited an inability to find safe spaces for homeless students before and after school.
As a result of these challenges, 89 percent of liaisons said they spend half their time or less on their responsibilities as liaisons.
Recommendations to Improve Support
Both the report and panelists at the event offered a number of recommendations to help support the growing number of homeless students in the country, including creating more affordable housing and transportation options.
For liaisons, increasing funding is the most important step—78 percent of liaisons in the report said they needed funding more than anything, followed by time, staff, resources, and community awareness.
Students on the panel said they needed better access to healthcare and insurance. Eighty-nine percent of liaisons in the report have worked with students who have experienced trauma or abuse, and 72 percent have worked with homeless students struggling with addiction.
“I wish I had been able to see a therapist,” a young person said in the report. “I needed medication for my anxiety and depression, which only worsened with stress…The stress of being in school and being homeless and not receiving any real help almost sent me to a psychiatric ward.”
Students on the panel also said they needed more information about the resources and the people out there to help them, but they expressed a desire for confidentiality if they did choose to tell someone about their situation.
Both students and liaisons said organizations that serve homeless youth should find a way to work together.
“I want to see a breakdown of some of the silos that we have in the services to these families…the domestic violence people sometimes stay in their little corner, and the early childhood people stay in their little corner, higher ed people are in their little spot, housing people are in another one,” a liaison said in the report. “If we could come up with some way where all of these services were working together, I think it would really ease some burden on families in accessing what they need.”
One student on the panel simply called for people to pay more attention.
“I had a ton of red flags, and no one picked them up. My address was the school. Can I get any more obvious?” She said she was often late to class, but her teachers never asked her why she was late; instead, they told her to show up on time or not show up at all.
“There are red flags,” she continued. “Please look for them.”