Want to Help Homeless Children? Address Their Education


Recently, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution recognizing November 2019 as Homeless Children and Youth Awareness Month and, importantly, highlighted lack of education as a key characteristic of homeless youth.

The Senate resolution noted that young people without a high school degree or general educational development certificate (GED) are significantly more likely to report homelessness than their peers, making lack of education the leading risk factor for homelessness.

New research supports the homelessness-education connection.

A recent report by the policy research center Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago noted, “Homelessness and housing instability interfere with young people’s abilities and opportunities to stay in school and achieve their education aspirations.”

The result is a cycle of homelessness: “In turn, given that more education typically yields higher earnings, low educational attainment complicates youth’s efforts to secure stable housing and avoid recurring homelessness.”

Based upon national survey data, the report notes that “not completing high school is the greatest single risk factor associated with experiencing unaccompanied homelessness as a young person,” with 35 percent of youth without a high school degree or GED reporting homelessness within the prior year, compared to 10 percent of those with at least a high school diploma or GED.

On the flip side, “youth and young adults experiencing homelessness are less likely to have completed a high school diploma or GED than their peers,” and are one-third as likely to be enrolled in a four-year college as their stably housed peers.

Different demographics do not alter the basic findings: “The association between lower levels of education and youth homelessness remain even when we account for other characteristics, such as race, sexual orientation, and household income.”

In our recent article for the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, Michele Steeb and I point out: one in three homeless children has a major mental disorder by the time he or she is eight years old; homeless children have twice the rate of learning disabilities and three times the rate of emotional and behavioral problems, which makes homeless students twice as likely to repeat a grade as non-homeless children; and homeless children perform worse academically than low-income children.

So what are the solutions?

Some of the recommendations by the Chapin Hall report include identifying youth at risk for homelessness before they reach crisis; strengthening coordination between schools, local service providers and others; and creating a single point of contact for students experiencing homelessness.

In the Hoover article, Steeb and I point out that the federal Housing First policy focuses on providing housing without addressing the causes of homelessness and prohibits accountability requirements for housing recipients.

Further, we note: “HUD-funded and state-funded programs for homeless families are forced to accept anyone into their program, even those with untreated mental illness or addiction, putting children and their mothers at great risk of re-traumatization by placing them in dangerous environments—environments that will likely lead to destructive, generational behavior patterns as well.”

Thus, the Housing First policy must be overhauled, and the White House Council of Economic Advisors should conduct an evaluation of the policy.   Further, a better definition of what constitutes a homeless family should be adopted at the federal level, while the Administration for Children and Families at HHS should be designated as the agency responsible for homeless families.  Finally, partnerships should be established with accountability-centered organizations that create self-sufficient individuals and families.

In addition, successful school models, such as Life Learning Academy charter school in San Francisco, which caters to homeless youths and which I profile in my book Choosing Diversity, should be replicated.

The bottom line, as the Chapin Hall report observes, is that education is key to battling youth homelessness: “Education is both an essential pathway that helps protect youth from experiencing homelessness and a vital intervention pathway that can promote sustainable exits from homelessness.”

–Lance Izumi is senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute and author of the 2019 book Choosing Diversity: How Charter Schools Promote Diverse Learning Models and Meet the Diverse Needs of Parents and Children.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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