Relief Funds Help Districts Find Homeless Students Lost During Pandemic

Report: Federal aid has tripled the number of districts receiving funds to identify and re-engage homeless students, but challenges remain

Kevon Lee, who was homeless as a child, is now a peer support advocate for the San Bernardino County Office of Education in California. He tells his story at schools throughout the county and helps identify students for homeless education services. (Glen Bates)

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Kevon Lee spent most of his K-12 years in and out of foster care, eking out a living in motels and his grandmother’s 1969 Chevy. He probably attended more than a dozen schools before he graduated. 

That background is exactly what Brenda Dowdy was looking for. Dowdy, who oversees homeless education services for California’s San Bernardino County, wanted to reconnect with the 6,000 students who stopped receiving homeless services when schools first went virtual in the early days of the pandemic. Now, Lee visits schools throughout the county’s 34 school districts to share his story and let students know there are educators who can help. 

“We wanted to get people who could truly relate to them and understand what they’re going through,” she said. “The kids are like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s me.’”

Lee’s hiring as a “peer support advocate” is one example of how educators are using the $800 million provided by the American Rescue Plan a year ago to help districts identify and support homeless students.  The funding has more than tripled the number of districts receiving dedicated funding for that population, according to a forthcoming report from nonprofit SchoolHouse Connection, based on responses from 37 states. 

Homeless students have a right to immediate enrollment in school, even without academic and residency documents, and to remain there no matter where they move. But the relief funds have expanded ways districts can respond to emergencies. Many offer families prepaid debit cards and pay for short-term hotel stays. One purchased bicycles to help students get to school. 

Experts say districts often underestimate the number of students who qualify for homeless education services, a fact the pandemic has only worsened. Federal data confirms the number of students receiving services dropped in more than 40 states after the pandemic began. Preliminary figures from a few states show the count continued to decline during the 2020-21 school year. Remote learning topped the reasons offered by district homeless liaisons. 

During the time they no longer saw students in person, educators missed the usual warning signs that living arrangements were unstable, such as students wearing the same clothes for multiple days or getting off at different bus stops. 

“Not very many thought that homelessness had actually decreased,” said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection. “The big trends in education that people are paying attention to — enrollment loss, chronic absence — homelessness is a churning factor behind all of that.” 

Some families avoided homelessness last year because of federal rental assistance and a temporary federal eviction moratorium. But many homeless students didn’t qualify for the emergency aid. Experts note that homeless families often live under the radar because they’re in and out of hotels, double up in others’ homes and sleep in their cars. 

Colorado is among the states that continued to see the number of students receiving services fall during distance learning — a 26% drop, from 20,821 in 2019-20 to 15,374 in 2020-21. 

“It’s not because we solved homelessness,” Paula Gumina, the state education department’s coordinator for homeless education, said during a recent training webinar. In an email, she attributed the decrease to chronic absenteeism, students dropping out of school and staff turnover.

The state’s Cherry Creek district used its relief funds to purchase a van to transport homeless students to school and hire a specialist to support unaccompanied homeless youth in high school, according to the SchoolHouse Connection report.

Even in Florida, where schools were open during the 2020-21 school year, the number of students served fell from almost 80,000 in 2019-20 to less than 64,000. While the state mandated in-person learning, enrollment in virtual programs more than doubled, contributing to educators losing connections with homeless students.

In the Orange County Public Schools, for example, roughly half of students opted for the remote LaunchED@Home program, according to a spokesman. That year, the district identified almost 900 fewer homeless students.

With staff training and a digital questionnaire for parents replacing a paper form, this year’s count is back up to over 5,500, but still below the pre-pandemic figure of over 6,000, according to Kimberly Gilbert, the district’s senior director of federal programs. 

‘Far more students’

Oklahoma was among the states that increased training requirements for liaisons, and those efforts have paid off, said Matt Colwell, executive director of school success for the state education department. 

“We still have several districts that report zero [homeless] students,” he said. “We know there are far more students experiencing homelessness in our state than we are identifying and serving.”

In San Bernardino County, Dowdy contracts with nonprofits like Give Something Back, which provides scholarships and recruits youth that were homeless, in foster care or had incarcerated parents to serve as mentors.

And she’s hired a second staff member to work with Lee.

When he visits schools, Lee talks about the one person who made sure he stayed in school, applied for college and followed up with phone calls to admissions directors — a counselor at Cajon High School in San Bernardino. 

“She just gave me her time when I needed to talk to somebody,” said Lee, who survived  gunshot wounds as a child. “Nobody in my family went to college. My mother and father didn’t even graduate from high school.”

Now 24, he’s earning a master’s degree in higher education while working to give other homeless students the same attention. 

At a recent school visit, a student told him he had slept on the street the night before. Teachers often miss signs of homelessnes, Lee said, and he views educating them as an important part of his job.

“The average educator might not know that there are youth in their classrooms that experience this on a daily basis,” he said.

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