Homeless Students Are Missing from COVID Relief

Without improvements to the current COVID-19 relief bill moving through the House, very little aid, if any, is likely to reach the 1.5 million students experiencing homelessness. The education package contains nearly $130 billion for K-12 education, with a press release declaring that the bill was a “clear message” to the American people that help was on the way. Regrettably, the message to students experiencing homelessness, clearly, is that help is not on the way.

The bill does call on states and local educational agencies to reserve small portions of their funds to address the “disproportionate impact of the coronavirus” on a number of student populations. But based on the last two rounds of COVID relief, as well as thirty years of advocacy to ensure implementation of federal protections for homeless students, there is very little reason to believe these reserved funds will reach students experiencing homelessness, who are also disproportionately students of color, English learners, and students with disabilities.

Students experiencing homelessness are largely invisible and difficult to identify: they move from place to place, and rarely disclose their situation out of fear, stigma, and not knowing that help is available. Data suggests that even before the pandemic and economic crash, the 1.5 million K-12 students experiencing homelessness identified by schools was a dramatic underestimate. Without a stable address, paperwork, transportation — and, for unaccompanied youth, without a parent — they face numerous barriers to basic school enrollment, attendance, and success.

This is precisely why Congress provided strong educational protections in federal law (the McKinney-Vento Act): immediate enrollment, school stability, transportation, dispute resolution, and the designation of a liaison at every LEA who has ten specific duties, including outreach and identification. But these protections are only as good as efforts to implement them — and fund them.

And the evidence is clear — Congress has failed students experiencing homelessness during the worst economic, health and social disaster in our nation’s history:

  • The first major COVID relief bill, the CARES Act, stated that funds “may” be used to support homeless children through EHCY. But in a survey of 1,444 school district homeless liaisons conducted in September and October of 2020, only 18 percent indicated that CARES Act funds were being used to support homeless children.
  • In part because the CARES Act did not specifically allocate funding to support children experiencing homelessness, one in four homeless children (420,000 homeless children) have gone unidentified and unenrolled in public schools due to COVID-19. Without direct funding (not just an allowable use) through the unique program that provides for basic educational access, these children and youth are not being enrolled in school, and may be in harm’s way.
  • Left to set their own priorities, states and school districts do not prioritize students experiencing homelessness. For example, this summer, the Center for Reimagining Public Education conducted a review of the support districts offered to their students experiencing homelessness. They found that homeless students were largely unmentioned in districts’ fall reopening plans, with only 10 percent of the district plans in their database. The pattern continued this fall, with just 17 out of 100 districts in the database including plans for support tailored to students experiencing homelessness during the current school year. Bottom line: families and youth experiencing homelessness are not a vocal constituency, and will not be a priority unless Congress makes them a priority.

There is nothing inevitable about the decisions that Congress is making. The wonky rules of the budget reconciliation process, the need to move bills quickly, the expediency of sticking with the same base structure as previous relief bills — these are excuses, and flimsy excuses at that. Where there is a will, there is a way. There is also precedent: in previous national emergencies, Congress has directed specific, targeted funding through the McKinney Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) program. For example, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided an additional $70 million for EHCY. Relief legislation responding to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, or wildfires have provided targeted funding for EHCY. Even the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 included support for EHCY.

What’s to be done? Congress should ensure in any final bill that at least $500 million in COVID education funding be reserved for students experiencing homelessness. This amount — which is less than half of one percent of the $130 billion proposed for K-12 education — would dramatically increase the number of local educational agencies receiving EHCY grants. Currently, only 23% of LEAs receive EHCY subgrants due to low funding levels, resulting in even less attention and support for homeless students.

Congress also must ensure that these students and their families have emergency needs met to help stabilize their housing, health, and other basic needs. Unfortunately, homelessness aid passed out of the Financial Services Committee this week will not support most homeless students, because the definition of “homeless” used by HUD excludes 84 percent of the homeless children identified by public schools. Congress should address this gap by including the bipartisan Emergency Family Stabilization Act, which provides flexible funding directly to community agencies, in any final package.

Democratic lawmakers have professed their concerns about the growing inequities in education that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. If they are serious about educational equity, they will put the money where their mouths are, walk the talk, and direct funding to the children, youth, and families who are among the most marginalized. The consequence of not doing so is predictable and avoidable: millions of students and families who fall further and further from opportunity, continue to experience homelessness as adults, and remain at high risk for spreading and contracting COVID-19.