Concern rises as time runs out for student homelessness funds

For decades, schools have struggled to identify and support homeless students.

Investigations by the Center for Public Integrity and our reporting partners in 2022 and 2023 showed that schools often undercount such students and flout the federal law that promises them equal access to education.

Advocates cite meager federal funding as one reason schools don’t devote the time and resources required to help these students succeed in class.

Then came a one-time windfall of $800 million from the U.S. Department of Education in spring 2021 to support homeless students. Many schools bolstered their support in new ways: providing hotel rooms for families; hiring staff to help families navigate housing and social service bureaucracies; offering debit and gift cards to families to buy clothing and other necessities.

But a large portion of the money remains unspent, according to a new report from SchoolHouse Connection, a national advocacy organization for homeless students.

Federal data shows that states spent less than 40% of the funds as of February. The funds expire in September unless Congress extends the deadline.

Several factors — delays in federal guidance, high staff turnover and district-level spending restrictions among them — created the conditions for a “perfect storm … all at a time of tremendous need,” said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection.

The organization has urged Congress to extend the deadline by one year and wants more school district leaders to include their homeless liaisons — staff who work with homeless students — in conversations about how to spend the money. The appropriations committees in the Senate and House of Representatives would make the final call on whether to grant an extension.

U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a Democrat; Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a Republican; and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, an independent, wrote to leaders on the Senate Appropriations Committee to advocate for the one-year extension, arguing that with the deadline “looming just months from now, schools are running out of time to thoughtfully and effectively use [the] funds despite unprecedented homelessness.”

After schools went remote during the early days of the pandemic and staff had a harder time determining which students were experiencing housing instability, the number of students identified as homeless declined.

Years later, the numbers are rising again across the country in cities such as San Diego, California; Memphis, Tennessee; Dayton, Ohio; and Syracuse, New York. In Houston, Texas, one of the nation’s 10 largest school districts, student homelessness last school year topped the figure in the 2017-18 school year marked by the devastating Hurricane Harvey.

But the problem isn’t just plaguing urban school systems. Suburban and rural districts — including Cumberland Valley, Pennsylvania; Lake County, Florida; New Bedford, Massachusetts; and Oakridge, Oregon — have also experienced increases.

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Almost half of schools’ homeless education liaisons reported that their districts had seen increases in the number of students experiencing homelessness compared with the same time last year, according to a national survey conducted by SchoolHouse Connection between November and mid-January. Meanwhile, less than 10% of staff reported decreases.

The survey also found that 25% of homeless liaisons were concerned they may not use all their funding by the deadline. Another 25% reported not knowing their districts received the funds, an indication that school leaders left them out of conversations about how to best support the students.

In Alaska, districts could miss out on more than $1 million awarded to the state. Duffield said districts have been slow to spend even in states, such as California and Washington, that have raised awareness about the extra funding.

“While a big part of the long-term answer is higher sustained funding, the short-term fix is just changing that ‘four’ to a ‘five,’ which costs nothing,” Duffield said, referring to the deadline year. “And yet we have our hands full, advocacy-wise.”

Another part of the problem is that schools have focused on spending a much larger pot of federal money, $122 billion from the pandemic-era Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, at the expense of the funds dedicated to homeless students. Districts can use that other money to support students experiencing homelessness but aren’t required to do so.

The SchoolHouse Connection report also calls on state legislators to provide dedicated resources to identify and support students experiencing homelessness and revise state laws to remove barriers that block the students from succeeding in school.

That work is underway in Washington state, where the legislature nearly doubled funding for the Homeless Student Stability Program to $9 million after stories by the Center for Public Integrity and The Seattle Times revealed that students experiencing housing instability were often left behind. With the increase, the program boosted funding for 17 districts and provided money to another 30-plus.

In Pennsylvania, legislation that would reverse a state law that allows schools to bar any students, including homeless children, from class during residency disputes is up for consideration in the Republican-led state Senate after the House of Representatives passed the bill unanimously.

“The Senate Education Committee is actively considering this bill and preparing it for a vote,” state Sen. David Argall, the committee chairman, wrote in a statement provided to Public Integrity.

The bill gained traction late last year after a Public Integrity investigation showed that school districts in the state locked students out of school for weeks or months while investigating their families’ claims of homelessness.

Current state law conflicts with the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which requires school districts to immediately enroll students experiencing housing insecurity until residency disputes are resolved.

From The Center for Public Integrity