Abandoned and left homeless by her drug-abusing parents, Burns High School senior Dawn Loggins of Lawndale, North Carolina was forced to rely on her friends’ spare couches and empty floors for shelter. When teachers and others in the town found out about the plight of the straight-A student, they pitched in to help, providing her with a job, clothes, and even a place to live. With the community rallying behind her, Dawn was able to leverage her academic success into a full-ride scholarship to Harvard University, where the promise of a better future awaited.
“There are so many kids whose futures aren’t so sure, and they need help more than I do,” she told CNN in an interview. “I want them to be able to use my story as motivation. And I want the general public to realize that there are so many kids who need help.”
While Dawn’s story is one of success over adversity, more and more students continue to struggle with the burden of finding a stable place to live. The number of homeless students in America has topped 1 million for the first time, a result of the prolonged economic recession according to a report issued in June by the U.S. Department of Education. The study found that 1,065,794 homeless students were enrolled in classes during the 2010-2011 school year, a 13 percent rise from the preceding year and a 57 percent increase overall since 2007. 44 states reported an increase in the number of their students without a permanent residence, with 15 states documenting an increase of 20 percent since the previous school year.
The statewide data shows just how devastating the recession has been in communities hit hardest by the economic downturn. In Michigan—where unemployment is still above the national average —every county in the state reported an increase in the number of homeless students, with the state as a whole reporting a 38 percent increase from the previous school year. Since 2007, Michigan has seen its homeless population increase by a staggering 400% – by far the largest increase for a state in the number of documented homeless students since the recession began.
The growth in number of homeless students is not just limited to recession-addled areas. In Fairfax County, Virginia, one of the most affluent counties in the nation, officials reported that at least 2,500 homeless students would attend public schools this year – 10 times the number reported in the county only 15 years ago.
Government efforts have placed a greater emphasis on indentifying and supporting homeless students in schools, but the increasing number of students without homes coupled with budget constraints limits their effectiveness. The most comprehensive program for homeless students is the McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, which works to identify homeless students—defined as those who live on the street, in a shelter, with a friend, or who live a transient lifestyle through no fault of their own—and take steps to ensure their continued education and wellbeing.
“The protections and services of the McKinney-Vento Act are the best tools to address the educational needs of homeless children and youth,” says Barbara Duffield, Policy Director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. “The Act requires school districts to identify homeless children and youth proactively, stabilize their education, and link them to supportive services. Unfortunately, funding for the program has remained flat, while the numbers of homeless children and youth have grown exponentially.”
Even with programs geared towards keeping them in school, many homeless students struggle to balance their schoolwork with their lack of stable housing. The U.S. Department of Education’s report found that only 52 percent of identified homeless students who took standardized tests were proficient in reading, and only 51 percent passed the math portion. Homeless students were also found to be more likely to drop out of school and less likely to graduate high school than their classmates. In Virginia, homeless students had the lowest graduation rate of any sub-group, and a drop-out rate of 19 percent that was almost three times the state average of 7.1 percent.
“If unaddressed, the high mobility, severe poverty, and trauma of homelessness combine to wreak havoc on academic progress,” Duffield says. “Homelessness causes children and youth to fall behind in school, and it seriously jeopardizes their chances of completing high school.”
NEA is calling on all educators and friends of public education to take the “Kids Not Cuts” pledge – to promise to speak up for America’s kids and working families, and to make sure Congress makes the right choices in the current budget negotiations. Across-the-board cuts of almost $5 billion would be particularly devastating for education programs for homeless students, English language learners, and high-poverty, struggling schools.
Share your story. Tell us how “fiscal cliff” budget cuts would affect your students, you, your schools and your school colleagues. Make sure Congress hears your voice and knows you will hold them accountable.