Latest report: More than 1 million U.S. students are homeless
By Kate Santich
In recent years, you’ve heard a lot about the growing number of homeless students in Central Florida’s public schools. But the problem isn’t limited to our region — or our state. Sadly, data released Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Education show that, for the first time in history, the nation’s public schools reported more than 1 million homeless students.
The number includes children enrolled in U.S. public preschools and kindergarten through 12th grade for the 2010-2011 school year. And the figure actually underestimates the number of homeless children by excluding infants, toddlers, preschool-aged children who aren’t enrolled in public programs and homeless children who are home-schooled. (Yes, they exist. I recently interviewed a family that has lived in a motel for nine months while the parents continue to home-school their three children.)
According to the federal government, 44 states had an increase in the number of homeless students compared to 2009-2010 — and for 15 states the increase was a staggering 20 percent or more. The states with the biggest increases were Kentucky (up 47 percent), Michigan (38 percent), Mississippi (35 percent), Utah (47 percent) and West Virginia (38 percent). The number of homeless children enrolled in public schools nationwide has increased 57 percent since the recession began in the 2006-2007 school year.
Florida, with nearly 56,000 homeless students across the state in 2010-2011, increased 15 percent over the previous year — and ranks fourth in the nation in terms of sheer numbers.
“We’ve never seen numbers like these before,” says Beth Davalos, who runs the Families in Transition program for homeless students enrolled in Seminole County Public Schools. And the only reason Florida’s figures didn’t increase more sharply, she says, is that the state did a better job than most of identifying homeless students in previous years.
Still, she adds, “These numbers only reinforce the urgent need to increase our focus on helping our homeless children and families. Otherwise, the numbers will continue to rise.”
Much of the increase has been tied to unemployment and under-employment.
In Michigan, for instance, where automakers laid off legions of workers, the number of homeless children enrolled in public schools has increased 315 percent from 2008 to 2011.
“Every single county in Michigan reported homeless children and youth in its public schools,” said Pam Kies-Lowe, the state’s coordinator for homeless education. “One school district referred to … youth homelessness as the ‘tsunami after the earthquake.’ ”
Under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, school districts are required to immediately enroll homeless youth. The law also requires that, when it’s in the students’ best interest, schools must allow homeless children to stay in the same school even if their families are forced to move because of eviction or foreclosure.
In Central Florida — as across the nation — schools have responded to the growing ranks of homeless students by launching food pantries, clothing closets, free summer programs and other support efforts.
This past academic year, school districts in Orange, Osceola and Seminole projected they would reach a collective homeless population of 10,000 students.
According to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, the report reveals “the troubling depth” of America’s housing crisis.
“The severe lack of affordable housing for families has yet to be addressed, and over one million children are paying the price,” said Maria Foscarinis, the nonprofit agency’s executive director. “Everyone has a human right to safe, decent, affordable housing. And until we make that right a reality for all Americans, the number of homeless students will continue rising.”