Homelessness is Inextricably Connected to Hunger

Barbara Duffield, Executive Director of SchoolHouse Connection, was invited to participate in a Congressional roundtable, which is part of the House Rules Committee series on ending hunger in America to address how schools address homelessness — broadly — and how issues like homelessness cannot be addressed in silos from issues like hunger. Below is the oral testimony, and to see the written testimony, click here.

Chairman McGovern, Ranking Member Cole, and members of the Committee. Thank you for the opportunity to discuss the role of schools in ending hunger and improving nutrition. My name is Barbara Duffield and I am the Executive Director of SchoolHouse Connection, a national non-profit organization working to overcome homelessness through education.

Public schools see what no other entity sees: the child who hoards food before a three-day weekend; the child who falls asleep in class because she was keeping watch over her siblings all night long; the child who gets off at different bus stops each day — the child who is homeless.

Homelessness is inextricably connected to hunger. Families and youth stay hungry in order to stay housed; they eat less in order to pay rent. Once homeless, finding food or accessing meals becomes much more challenging. Moving from place to place, not having transportation or cooking facilities (or even a can opener) are all real barriers. Families and youth who stay with other people eat less, or not at all, in order not to get kicked out. It should come as no surprise that high school students experiencing homelessness are nearly three times as likely not to have had breakfast each day, compared to their stably housed peers.

A significant impediment to solving the problem of child and youth homelessness is its invisibility: we cannot solve what we do not see. Many communities lack shelter capacity. For these reasons, families and youth move frequently between unstable situations that make it hard to social distance, and impossible to stay “at home.” Of the 1.4 million homeless children and youth identified by public schools in the 2018–2019 school year, only 12% were staying in shelters when first identified. In the areas represented by the Members on the Rules Committee alone, 61,796 homeless students were identified by schools in the 19–20 school year.

When we understand how children and youth experience homelessness — that most of these students are not in shelters, but rather stay in hidden situations — it becomes even clearer that schools are not only the best, but often the only source of food and support. Yet homelessness creates many barriers to school enrollment and attendance, and hunger makes school success all the more difficult.

Congress has taken important steps to remove these barriers. Under the McKinney-Vento Act, every local educational agency is required to designate a homeless liaison to ensure that homeless children and youth are identified and connected to services. Children and youth who are homeless also are categorically eligible for school meals. School, then, can be a refuge — a home for children and youth who have none of their own.

Homelessness is inextricably connected to hunger. Families and youth stay hungry in order to stay housed; they eat less in order to pay rent. Once homeless, finding food or accessing meals becomes much more challenging. Moving from place to place, not having transportation or cooking facilities (or even a can opener) are all real barriers. Families and youth who stay with other people eat less, or not at all, in order not to get kicked out.

But when the pandemic took hold in the United States, children and youth experiencing homelessness lost that home, too; they lost the most stable places in their lives. Without school staff to notice potential signs of homelessness, many students went missing. Last fall, we partnered with the University of Michigan on a national survey that found a 28% decrease in the numbers of McKinney-Vento children and youth compared to the previous fall — a drop of about 420,000 students. These numbers are cause for great concern, because if homeless children and youth are not identified by schools, they may not be enrolled or fed.

Despite the many upheavals of the pandemic, educators have worked diligently to stay connected and meet needs holistically. My written testimony contains examples of outstanding efforts,

  • From wraparound service coordinators and host homes for homeless youth in Adams 12 Five Star Schools in Colorado
  • To dispatching school safety officers to deliver meals to homeless families in Lawton, OK
  • To statewide efforts in Massachusetts to ensure homeless families and youth receive Pandemic EBT.

I urge Members to contact the McKinney-Vento homeless liaisons in their districts, and learn from their on-the-ground perspectives.

We must build on the role of schools, and leverage their unique position in communities. But siloed responses from different federal agencies create barriers that cause and perpetuate homelessness, and therefore cause and perpetuate hunger. To help remove these silos, I offer a number of recommendations in my written testimony. I’d like to touch on two of them very briefly.

Most pressing, the Treasury Department should authorize and incentivize the use of public schools to deliver emergency rental assistance to prevent evictions. If we can prevent homelessness, we can prevent hunger. Many ERA programs have been unable to distribute assistance in a timely manner. The result is billions of dollars in unspent funds, while the ranks of families facing eviction and experiencing homelessness grow. To reach vulnerable families quickly and seamlessly, the ERA Program should leverage public schools. Time is running out for millions of families.

Second, we must ensure that schools have the capacity to identify and serve homeless families and youth; if we don’t, schools will continue to under-identify and under-enroll them, preventing access to school meals. School district homeless education programs do provide an existing infrastructure to reach hidden families and youth. But in the most recent fiscal year, less than one in four LEAs received direct support through the EHCY program. The American Rescue Plan Act (ARP) provided $800 million for homeless children and youth, allowing many more school districts to receive dedicated support. Congress should maintain at least this level of funding annually.

In closing, to those who would say that schools have their hands full right now, especially as they attempt to re-open safely, re-engage students, and close learning gaps, I would say that there is no equity in education and no academic recovery without responding to hunger and homelessness. Let’s not forget that homelessness is experienced disproportionately by students of color, students with disabilities, and English learners.

Schools certainly can’t solve these problems alone, but their insights and knowledge should be leveraged, and should inform and shape other agencies’ policies — as should the experiences of our students and parents themselves, who know better than any of us the power of school and school-based services to change their lives.

This is hub of expertise and stories to drive solutions around children, youth, and family homelessness. It is a project of SchoolHouse Connection.