This school year, schools identified around 420,000 fewer homeless students than last year. That would normally be a hopeful sign, but not during the pandemic. Advocates say there aren't fewer students experiencing homelessness. It's just that schools can't find them.
Deb Foust is a lead area homeless liaison. She helps schools across over a dozen northern Illinois counties identify and provide resources to families according to the McKinney-Vento Act, which guarantees the right to education for homeless students.
“I don't know if I believe we've got less kids, I just think things are falling through the cracks,” she said.
Last year, Foust says they identified close to 4,000 homeless students in her state designated area. This year, they’ve identified 1,500 fewer students -- the majority from Rockford Public Schools. If they don’t get identified, they may not know they have the right to education.
“We don't have a lot of shelters for families to even live in, let alone the kids that aren’t living with their parent or legal guardian. If they're under 18, the shelters aren't able to take them,” she said. “So, it's like, where are these poor kids going?”
Foust stresses most of these families work marginal jobs where losing even a little bit of their income is devastating.
“They have tried to maintain their jobs. They have tried to be good stewards of their resources. And based on whatever is happening, they still have fallen into this McKinney-Vento situation,” said Foust.
Staggering unemployment rates have pushed many families out of their homes. Barbara Duffield is the executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a nonprofit that advocates for policy and helps provide direct assistance to schools and communities. She says being homeless doesn’t look like the stereotype you may picture.
“Most children who are experiencing homelessness are not in shelters. They're not in motels, they're staying temporarily with other people where they're really at their mercy,” said Duffield.
That means they’re excluded from rent relief, eviction moratoriums and other federal homeless assistance. Moving from couch to couch could also expose families to COVID-19.
Schools are a lifeline for homeless students. It’s more than education -- they offer food, support services and a safe place to learn. But in the age of remote and hybrid learning, meeting those students’ needs is more complicated.
According to a survey from SchoolHouse Connection, internet access and shelter housing are students’ two biggest unmet needs. Erin Strouss is a homeless student liaison and counselor in Rochelle. She’s made home visits to drop off computers for remote learning. But she says they still have a handful of families without reliable internet.
“Internet connectivity is just, it's a constant battle for us. And we've tried different avenues to get hotspots for education, and it's not easy. It's taking forever,” said Strouss.
The district also sent a bus around to different locations in the community as a roving wi-fi beacon. Strouss has also seen families on the brink of being homeless struggle to get government-subsidized housing paperwork approved.
“This particular family was doing everything right -- everything we suggested, everything the apartment housing suggested and there's nothing that they could do,” she said.
Deb Foust says remote learning puts such students out of sight of the people who often notice when they don’t have a permanent place to stay.
“Identification of these kids come from all different types of staff at the district level,” she said. “I mean, bus drivers because they're seeing where the kids are getting on and off, the cafeteria workers, of course, the nurses and social workers.”
Schools have been using food and tech deliveries to give out McKinney-Vento information. They have to rely more on community groups too.
Unfortunately, the grant funding Foust gets from the McKinney-Vento Act can’t be used for everything. They can’t directly pay for rent or utilities, which she says is the most common request from families.
Along with education, she says, they can set them up with a Link Card for food and help them get emergency childcare. And they go through a lot of gas cards in the winter -- especially in places without much public transit, like Rochelle.
Barbara Duffield with SchoolHouse Connection stresses that because of the trauma caused by homelessness, the solution is beyond just housing.
“You have to have education if these children and youth are going to have a fighting chance of getting a job that pays a living wage, of being healthy in the future,” she said.
The CARES Act didn’t allocate money specifically for homeless students. SchoolHouse Connection is lobbying Congress to pass the Emergency Family Stabilization Act -- which would provide flexible funding for schools to meet housing and health emergency needs.
Duffield says before COVID-19, public schools identified a bit more than half of homeless high school students. With hundreds of thousands not being counted this year, experts say up to a million students could be without the services and education they’re guaranteed.