1.3 Million Students Are Homeless. What’s the Good News?

Federal data released earlier this month indicate that more than 1.3 million students enrolled in public schools during the 2016-17 school year were homeless. This represents a 7 percent increase in the number of homeless students over a three-year period and a 70 percent spike in the last decade.

These numbers are troubling for many reasons: Homelessness is associated with a host of challenging life outcomes, including difficulty staying in and graduating from school.

But there’s some potentially good news here. First, though tough economic conditions, high housing costs, and other factors likely led to real increases in the number of students experiencing homelessness, it’s likely that some of the increase is due to school districts simply getting better at identifying their homeless students. That’s a good thing. Schools can’t support students experiencing homelessness if they don’t know who they are.

Second, the data captured in this report only include those students who are enrolled in public schools. That means that all of the 1.3 million homeless students are still enrolled in school. Their attendance may well be spotty, but they haven’t dropped out. They are known to a set of adults who work in a system that can provide them with the academic support they need and can connect them to other services. That’s hugely important.

As my colleague and I have written, the education system can be a powerful through-line for young people experiencing homelessness or any other destabilizing life event. As the place where the vast majority of children go every day and interact with adults, schools provide a natural central point for connecting services that can support a child’s education and meet their other needs.

Want to learn more? We’ve written about the human-centered design policies and methods that take into account the real needs of students who experience disruptions to their educational trajectories. We’ve also addressed the promise of technology to support students in transition and launched a game to help build empathy and understanding about the challenges young people face as they navigate destabilizing events like homelessness, incarceration, or foster care placement.