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How the pandemic exacerbates pressures on students experiencing homelessness

School kids eating meals from USDA summer program
United States Department of Agriculture
Michigan has the 6th highest population of homeless students in the country. Many of those children depend on the consistency of in-person teaching, as well as school meals.

The pandemic is putting more families at risk for homelessness as financial pressure builds and eviction moratoriums end. Michigan already has the sixth highest rate of homeless students in the country, and many of those children rely on the consistency of walking into a physical building five days a week. Stateside talked to Jennifer Erb-Downward, a senior research associate with Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan, about how schools can help students experiencing homelessness, even as classes move online.

According to Downward's research, about one out of every twelve Michigan fifth graders experienced homelessness at some point during elementary school. Because of the pandemic, those kids are now cut off from their normal sources of support.

“[Homeless] youth also don’t have access to schools, they don’t have access to drop-in centers, to libraries. All of the places where there may have been adults that were helping in some way to provide a point of connection, to provide support and resources, they are missing right now,” Erb-Downward said.

Homelessness is defined for students under the federal McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act as a home situation that lacks adequate, fixed, and regular nighttime residence. Schools are federally mandated to provide support that helps students exepriencing homelessness  have equal access to education. This includes the right to immediate enrollment, transportation, and after school programs. Schools also provide other supports for struggling families. 

“Schools are where many students receive their meals. Sometimes breakfast, lunch, and even dinner. And if schools are not open, how are we getting those supplies, how are we getting those resources to kids?” Erb-Downward asked.

If schools choose to begin or transition the school year to remote learning, Erb-Downward says they need to think about how they will reach those students experiencing housing instability. For example, providing laptops that have built-in Wi-Fi access rather than assuming students will be able to access the internet at home. 

“I think when we’re talking about homelessness and housing instability, and thinking about what the needs are of children who are highly mobile, we need to be making sure that if we are talking about remote learning, if we are talking about providing Wi-Fi and laptops, that that Wi-Fi is something that moves with the laptop, that moves with the child,” Erb-Downward explained. 

Schools should act as information hubs for not only their students, but also families. Erb-Downward says it is imperative that schools help disperse information about government assistance to families who might be at risk of eviction or facing other financial challenges. 

Michigan has set aside $50 million for rental assistance through their eviction diversion program to help households who have less than the median area income avoid eviction. Erb-Downward says there are many families who have still not received the federal stimulus check because they do not have a bank account or because they have a yearly household income of less than $24,000, and so were never required to file income taxes. The Center for Poverty Solutions has an explainer on how those with low or no income can access the $1,200 stimulus check here.

“So one thing I would strongly advocate for is for all school districts, as they are working to enroll students, whether they are going remotely or in-person, that this information is shared with families because there are going to be so many more families who are at risk of losing their home,” Erb-Downward said. "And the educational consequences, the health consequences, of not having a stable place to live for a child are huge.”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Catherine Nouhan. 

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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