PBS NewsHour: Numbers on homeless students likely too low, Illinois data cited

By Mike Fritz

Rashema Melson lived for most of the last three years in a Washington D.C. shelter – known as DC General – before graduating as valedictorian from Anacostia High School in June. As the nation struggles to address an upsurge in homeless students, the NewsHour’s American Graduate team spent a day with Melson as she began her first year of classes at Georgetown University on a full academic scholarship.

Melson (video link) was one of more than 1.2 million homeless students enrolled in public preschools and K-12 schools last year, according to data released last month by the Department of Education. Roughly 76,000 of those students were thought to be living without parents and guardians.

The numbers marked a grim record for the U.S., which saw a steady surge in homeless students over the last six years fueled by the recession and historic rates of home foreclosures.

Yet accurately estimating the number of homeless students can be extremely difficult for school districts and the federal government.

According to the latest data, roughly 75 percent of the nation’s homeless youth are living in what’s known as “doubled-up” situations, meaning they are forced to share temporary housing with friends, relatives or anyone willing to take them in. The students living in this type of housing — which can include motels, trailer parks and campgrounds — are entitled to help from their local schools but do not qualify for assistance from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

And when it comes to the numbers on homeless children overall, the data collected on students represent only part of the picture. These latest projections, according to a recent U.S. News Data Mine report, fail to include “infants too young to be in school, those who are not enrolled in public preschool programs or older children who aren’t enrolled in school, who have dropped out or run away or are otherwise not identified by school officials.”

Some states like Illinois are struggling to keep track of the growing number of homeless students. Nearly 60,000 Illinois students are now identified as being homeless, more than double the number reported five years ago, said Patricia Nix-Hodes, the director of the Law Project for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

“Year after year, we are seeing dramatically increasing numbers of students in homeless situations,” Nix-Hodes said. “And we have a long way to go to get accurate data on unaccompanied youth.”

Many metropolitan areas have rolled out initiatives designed to provide assistance to the increase in homeless students. In Los Angeles, for example, where an estimated 15,000 homeless students go to school, the city’s Homeless Education Program provides backpacks, school supplies, hygiene kits and other support to at-risk students.

PBS SoCal filed this report for the NewsHour last summer about the program.

Despite the latest data, there were silver linings in other government statistics. In September, The Census Bureau reported that last year the rate of children under 18 living in poverty declined for the first time since 2000.

A bill known as the Homeless Children and Youth Act is expected to be reintroduced in Congress after the midterm elections that aims to amend HUD’s definition of homelessness and provide children with more supportive housing, food, and mental services.

Rashema Melson, for her part, is hoping to improve college access for other low-income students. She recently started a foundation to give scholarships to help those in situations like hers.

For more coverage on children and poverty, watch Frontline’s Poor Kids, which examines the lives of three young girls growing up as their families struggle against financial ruin.