More than 1.3 million students were identified as homeless during School Year (SY) 2013–14, more than double the number identified just seven years earlier. Yet despite their growing numbers, homeless students, and the school staff who support them, say many schools and communities remain unaware of the issues confronting these students, according to a new report written by Civic Enterprises and released by the GradNation campaign.
The report, Hidden in Plain Sight: Homeless Students in America’s Public Schools, draws on data collected from those who best understand the needs of homeless students—current and former homeless youth and the state coordinators and local liaisons assigned to help them. According to the youth, school district liaisons, and state homeless education coordinators consulted for the report, homeless students can succeed in school and continue toward successful futures, but that success depends on a collective effort between schools and community organizations to increase public awareness and prioritize actions that provide homeless students with the right support at the right times, the report explains.
“Homelessness is a threat to everything students might want to achieve in their lives, but it doesn’t have to be a barrier to success for millions of students,” John M. Bridgeland, president and chief executive officer of Civic Enterprises and coauthor of the report, says in a statement. “Schools, community organizations, and caring adults can create a web of support and lifelines to action that will help students experiencing homelessness cope and thrive.”
Seventy-eight percent of the young people surveyed experienced homelessness more than once during their middle and high school years and 68 percent said their homelessness made it difficult to succeed in school, according to the report. Students who experience homelessness are more likely to repeat a grade, have poor attendance, and fail courses, and less likely to complete rigorous college- and career-ready course work and graduate from high school on time—if they even graduate at all. Students experiencing homelessness are 87 percent more likely to drop out of school than their peers in stable housing, the report notes. Among the youth surveyed for the Civic Enterprises report, 60 percent said it was hard to stay in school during their homelessness and 42 percent dropped out at least once.
Homeless students as a subgroup have some of the lowest high school graduation rates. In the five states that currently track high school graduation rates for homeless students—Colorado, Kansas, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming—homeless students graduate at rates far lower than other students, including other students from low-income families, as the graph from the report shows below. In Washington, specifically, only 46.1 percent of homeless students graduate from high school—a rate lower than all other student subgroups other than foster youth, the report adds. The new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), requires all states to track and report high school graduation rates for homeless youth starting next school year.
To succeed in school, homeless students need concrete support (such as school supplies, transportation to and from school, and academic tutoring) as well as emotional support, according to the report. In fact, 54 percent of the formerly homeless youth surveyed ranked both types of support as equally important. But most youth also believe their schools did not do enough to provide them with this necessary support. Almost 60 percent of those surveyed said their schools should have done a lot more to help them stay and succeed in school, the report says.
But “[o]ne of the most significant challenges in addressing the needs of homeless youth [and connecting them to essential resources] is simply identifying them,” the report explains. Among the formerly homeless youth surveyed, 67 percent said they were uncomfortable talking with people at their school about their housing situation, and in qualitative interviews, many admitted that no one at their school ever knew about their homelessness, the report says. Additionally, many school and district staff members do not know how to identify the signs of homelessness or how to connect homeless students with support and resources. One-third of school district homeless education liaisons said they are the only staff members in their districts trained to identify and intervene with homeless youth and their families. They emphasized the importance of training school-based staff—specifically guidance counselors, social workers, office and clerical staff, and teachers—to identify homeless youth as well.
“Students spend a significant portion of their day in school—and as a result, schools can offer these students a safe and consistent place to study and access to caring adults who can help them navigate some of the challenges they face,” the report says. “In an otherwise chaotic time of homelessness, schools can be pillars of stability.”
Hidden in Plain Sight: Homeless Students in America’s Public Schools is available at http://www.gradnation.org/report/hidden-plain-sight.
For additional information about how ESSA supports the education needs of homeless students and other vulnerable youth, read the Alliance’s fact sheet or watch a special edition of the Alliance’s five-minute Federal Flash about high school dropout prevention and the reengagement of out-of-school youth at https://all4ed.org/essa/.
 GradNation is a national campaign of individuals, organizations and communities focused on raising the national on-time high school graduation rate to 90 percent by the Class of 2020 and increasing college enrollment and completion. The campaign is led by America’s Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises, Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, and the Alliance for Excellent Education.