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Report: Housing instability leading to chronic absenteeism in Detroit Public Schools

Cooley High School Detroit
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Creative Commons
Cooley High School in Detroit. The school was one of many recently closed by DPS.

Homelessness is chronic and widespread in Detroit. And it’s affecting learning in classrooms, both for the kids who show up and the kids who don’t.

That’s according to a new report, “A Stable Place to Live and Learn: Why Detroit Housing Policy Is Critical to the Success of City Schools,” by researchers with the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions team and Detroit Partrnership for Education Equity and Research.

Researchers said on average, one in 10 Michigan children will experience homelessness during their school years. For Black and Hispanic kids, that’s one in seven.

Jennifer Erb-Downward is one of the researchers behind the report. She says that widespread housing instability is affecting classrooms across Detroit.

“If you're in a classroom where you know there isn't the same constant attendance of students, students are being forced to move schools constantly because of issues like housing instability, then no one is able to really have that continuity of education that they should have a right to,” Erb-Downward said.

Erb-Downward and other researchers say that Detroit Public Schools have identified 4% of students who are chronically absent and experiencing homelessness.

But the report estimates that between 11 and 16% of Detroit’s school-aged children experience homelessness. And it found that formerly homeless students continue to have worse attendance than other students who were never homeless.

“So we know that students aren’t being identified at the rates they should be, which means they're not getting the services that they need and that they're legally required to get by federal law. So that's one big barrier, I would say,” says Sarah Lenhoff, another researcher who worked on the report.

As part of the federal McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act, families and students experiencing homelessness are supposed to get access to as many resources as possible to help remove barriers to getting those kids to school. Lenhoff says those services can include ride to school, continued enrollment even while the family moves around and anything else they might need.

But the schools have to know the families are experiencing homelessness. And Lenhoff says that a lot of families don’t let school know out of shame, fear of retribution and not knowing about the federal law meant to protect them.

“There there's there's kind of a demand to both solve housing instability, but also kind of lift up families who are living in poverty in many different ways and create public infrastructure to support them,” Lenhoff said.

The report recommends implementing school-year eviction restrictions for families with children, like one recently passed in Seattle. The report says Detroit has four times the rate of homelessness as Seattle has. It recommends Detroit Public Schools Community District and charter districts should partner with the City Council to pass a targeted moratorium on school-year evictions for families with children.

"We would leave it in the hands of the City Council to weigh the pros and cons of an eviction moratorium. Certainly a moratorium would provide greater stability for our families and most importantly our students," said Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District. "However, a moratorium is a quick fix to a deeper challenge associated with safe and affordable housing, reliable mass transportation, living wage employment, violence in communities, and access to health care. In other words, challenges rooted in concentrated poverty."

The report also recommends restriction for tenant screening, expunging eviction records, rental application fee limits as well as refund requirements and enforcing the city’s rental code.

The report also points to a need for more affordable housing, access to remote eviction proceedings and passing right to renew and just-cause legislation.

“Hopefully one of the big messages that will be taken away from it by educational policymakers is that this is not something that can be addressed through punitive measures. Families need support. They need stability. They need support both from schools and from city government to achieve that kind of stability,” Erb-Downward said. “And it's only when we create that kind of environment and network of support that we're going to really see kids able to succeed in school the way they should have a right to.”

Briana Rice is Michigan Public's criminal justice reporter. She's focused on what Detroiters need to feel safe and whether they're getting it.
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