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Detroit schools get automated alert when students enter homeless shelters


A new referral system sends Detroit schools an automatic alert when one of its students enters a homeless shelter. Advocates say it’s a simple but critical step, because they believe Detroit is drastically undercounting the number of students who are homeless. 

Unless they’re identified, those students won’t receive the services they’re legally entitled to under federal law, including transportation and immediate enrollment, even if they don’t have the typically required paperwork, like proof of residency. That’s according to Jennifer Erb-Downward, a senior research associate with the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions Initiative. 

"When we don't identify a child as experiencing homelessness and housing instability, we are denying them a right to education,” she says. “And we are all but guaranteeing they're going to be chronically absent from school.”

How it works

Whenever a family with school-aged children goes through the intake process for a homeless shelter in Detroit, the staff will alert the Wayne Community Metropolitan Community Action Agency, which is already overseeing a county-wide homeless assistance program. The agency will then alert the school’s homeless liaison, a position all school districts are required to fill. They’re currently about three months into the pilot program in Detroit, Erb-Downward says.


“The reason we set it up that way was because the person who administers the countywide homelessness program also has access to the HMIS system, because she's completed training in that. So she can get this automatic referral and then follow up with families to connect them to their schools, to connect them to the supports that they are eligible for," Erb-Downward said.

Why it’s needed


According to Erb-Downward’s research, roughly 1 in 6 kids in Michigan’s public school system is chronically absent (missing 10% or more of school days) and 40% of homeless students were chronically absent in the 2016-2017 school year. Chronically absent students are significantly more likely to drop out of school and less likely to meet grade-level standards, Erb-Downward says.


She says living in unstable conditions, or buildings that lack heat or water can contribute to poor health.


“One of the largest factors driving chronic absenteeism for kids is asthma. And if you're experiencing housing instability and homelessness, being able to control your asthma and not have it be something that prevents you from going to school can be very, very challenging," she said.


Thousands of homeless students not being identified


Because families or students may not feel comfortable telling schools they’re experiencing homelessness, getting those students the help they’re afforded by the federal law (known as the McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act) can be a challenge.


Erb-Downward believes public schools in Detroit are undercounting the number of homeless students they have by thousands.


“There is this sort of unofficial threshold, which is that if less than 10% of low income students in a school district are being identified as experiencing housing instability or homelessness, that there's a possible undercount taking place,” she says.


But in Detroit, 96% of all schools identified less than 10% of low-income students at homeless, according to Erb-Downward. The city’s schools (including both charter the traditional public schools) identified 1,862 students as homeless, she says. But if the 10% threshold holds true, you’d expect to see at least 7,589 students identified as homeless.


“So there really is a very dramatic undercount that's going on,” Erb-Downward says.


But that’s not just a problem in Detroit. In fact, because the city actually has homeless shelters (unlike some parts of the state) this new system is really about capturing the “low hanging fruit,” Erb-Downward says: children who are at least part of the shelter system are far easier to count than those who may never enter a shelter, and instead live their family’s car or crash with a rotation of friends and relatives.


Still, any part of the state that does have a shelter system, could adapt this model.
“This is something that could be replicated across the state, basically in any county,” she says. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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