The statistics report that 75 percent of the students recorded as homeless were living doubled-up in a residence with another family. A further 16 percent were living in a homeless shelter, while six percent were living in hotels or motels and three percent, 41,635 students, did not have any shelter at night.
Pennsylvania saw a 15 percent rise in homelessness among public school students, almost double the national rate, increasing from 18,231 to 19,459 children. Among that number, 4,000 students attended Philadelphia schools, with another 3,268 enrolled in surrounding counties.
Karyn Tymes oversees children living at the Woodstock Family Center, a homeless shelter in North Philadelphia for single mothers and their children. Residents constantly rotate in and out, but she estimates that about a hundred children live there at any given time.
When asked what her role is at Woodstock, Tymes responded, “I wear a lot of…can we say some capes? Aprons?” One of Tymes’ “capes” is that of the School Liaison, which means she checks up on the children at their schools to see how they are managing. This involves a lot of traveling; the students are enrolled in schools all across the city, some as far away as Plymouth Meeting, around 30 miles away in Montgomery County.
The reason for the children attending such a wide range of schools is the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act, part of the No Child Left Behind Act, which stipulates, among other things, that transportation be provided so that students experiencing homelessness can stay at the same school, even if they no longer live within the school’s district. This is meant to allow for some continuity in a child’s life that may otherwise have little consistency.
Even for students who are covered by McKinney-Vento, the stress of homelessness is proven to have significant damaging effects on their performance in school. As reported in 2012 by Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness, half of children who experience homelessness are held back for at least one grade. Twentytwo percent are held back for multiple grades. The study also found that children experiencing homelessness are twice as likely to have learning disabilities and three times as likely to have emotional disturbances as their peers who are not homeless.
“You don’t know if they’re in a shelter or in a home period, you don’t know what these kids are going through,” said Tymes.
A survey released in October by the Administration for Children and Families found that 60 percent of homeless youth have been raped or assaulted. “When the kids are shut in and shut down and don’t want to talk, there is something going on,” said Andrea Green, a Direct Support Professional at Woodstock.
Green provides support not only for the children, but also for the mothers. “We want to be role models towards the parents so they can know how to be role models for their children,” said Green. “They’re coming from broken homes and they are not stable so we’re here to make sure the stability comes.”
In Green’s view, though, the responsibility does not lie only on families. “We got to have the school, we got to have the neighborhood, and we got to have the parents,” she added.
The substantial rise in the reported number of students experiencing homelessness may partially be due to improvements in survey methodology. The total headcount, however, is still a low estimate for the actual number of students experiencing homelessness (The School District of Philadelphia, for example, estimated about 10,000 students experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia in 2013), since many homeless students choose to hide their living situation. In theory, at least, more accurate numbers should lead to more accurate funding. Government budgeting, however, does not currently respond accordingly to the statistics being collected. Of the students reported homeless in the 2012-2013 school year, only 64 percent were covered by McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance grants, the annual federal allotments under the McKinney-Vento Act that are meant to assist public schools in providing “a free and appropriate public education for homeless/displaced children and youth.”
The President’s Budget Proposal for Fiscal Year 2015, released in March, included a 14 percent increase to the McKinney-Vento program. However, the House of Representatives passed legislation that included zero increase to McKinney- Vento and the Senate’s legislation included an increase of only two percent. The Fiscal Year 2015 budget is not yet finalized, but prospects do not seem hopeful for a significant increase, if any, to McKinney-Vento funds.