A new study from The Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness says Tennessee is in the bottom of the pack when it comes to identifying and assisting homeless students.
In its study, “Out of the Shadows: A State-by-State Ranking of Accountability for Homeless Students,” the New York City-based policy research ranked Tennessee in 50th place on its ability to support homeless students.
The five indicators that the organization used to “hold states accountable for the support and identification of homeless students” were: (1) the percentage of homeless children enrolled in early Head Start or Head Start programs; (2) homeless children as a percentage of poor children in pre-kindergarten; (3) homeless children as a percentage of extremely poor children in grades kindergarten-12; (4) the percentage of all students identified as homeless or “doubled up,” which are students who are staying temporarily with another family or household; and (5) the percentage of homeless students identified as having a disability.
Tennessee only scored higher than Mississippi. According to the study and report, only 2.3 percent of Tennessee homeless children in the 2014-15 school year were in head start programs, which provide educational and health services to low-income children, and only 1 percent of poor children in Tennessee were enrolled in early childhood education services such as pre-kindergarten for the 2014-15 school year.
“The purpose of the study was to encourage states to evaluate their own programs for identifying and supporting homeless students, to build on best practices and identify gaps,” ICPH Chief of Staff Liz Cohen said. “It can be difficult to know when a student is experiencing homelessness, and we need to make sure that every school district is both training staff to recognize the signs of homelessness as well as accepting that there is student homelessness in virtually every school district in the U.S.”
The report acknowledged policy changes regarding homeless youth that have been enacted in the last several years. One of the most wide-reaching of these changes is the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, which included amendments to the McKinney-Vento Education of Homeless Children and Youth Assistance Act. These amendments contained stricter procedures for schools and districts in the provision and planning of various services for homeless students and an increase in funding for the U.S Department of Education’s Education for Homeless Children and Youth program. Despite these changes, the ICPH report states that there were 1.3 million students in public schools that were found to be homeless in the 2014-15 school year.
“Family homelessness is a growing concern in the U.S. that disproportionately impacts children,” Cohen said. “Through the examination of empirical, quantifiable data, the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness seeks to inform and enhance public policy related to homeless families, with an emphasis on the impact on children.”
According to the report, one of the issues leading to less state accountability for homeless students is the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) “limited definition of homelessness.” A large amount of federal funding related to family homelessness is provided by HUD, but only ED considers students who are “doubled up” to be homeless. According to the ICPH report, more than three-quarters of homeless students are “doubled up,” and many of these students are unaware of the assistance that is available to them through the McKinney-Vento Act.
“First and foremost, homeless students must be identified – the earlier in their educational careers, the better – and given access to appropriate supports and services,” Cohen said. “While there is no single, simple solution, we do know that education is one of the most important tools for helping families toward independence."