New report recommends state and federal spending changes to better support homeless youth

Identifying and supporting homeless youth can be as difficult as it is crucial to ensuring equitable outcomes among some of a local educational agency’s most vulnerable students. Approximately 1.3 million students in the United States were identified as experiencing some form of homelessness in 2019–20 — a number that has likely increased as a result of the pandemic.

Despite the need, LEAs lack the flexibility to address the ever expanding and shifting needs of homeless children, according to a May 6 report from the Learning Policy Institute examining the provisions of the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act and describing current federal and state financial supports for students experiencing homelessness.

Barriers faced by LEAs include unstable funding, inadequate funding to meet student needs, and restrictions on the allowable uses of funds, which limits officials’ ability to support non-educational expenses, such as emergency housing. Additionally, increased funding may help districts identify students experiencing homelessness, which in turn would allow more children to access the resources and supports they need.

“Homelessness can limit youth’s access to educational opportunities, as well as their physical and mental health. Housing instability and poverty can result in increased absences from school and can lead to students changing schools midyear. Each school move can entail new campuses, transportation arrangements, classes, curricula, and teacher expectations, disrupting students’ education and negatively impacting their opportunity to learn,” researchers wrote. “Through residential and school mobility, children can become separated from family and school and neighborhood friends, with important consequences for social, emotional, and educational well-being. Moreover, housing instability and severe poverty can lead to food instability and complicate efforts to receive needed health services. The multiple challenges associated with homelessness have major implications for student learning outcomes.”

Such outcomes include lower reading, math and science scores on standardized assessments than their housed peers. And homelessness significantly reduces the likelihood that students will graduate high school and enroll in college.

Federal funding

McKinney-Vento provides annual grants to states to support programs for students experiencing homelessness. Funding for the program increased $36.1 million between 2010 and 2020 as the national rate of students experiencing homelessness increased by 39 percent. However, that 55 percent increase in funds only moved the funding level from $71 per identified pupil to $79 — a small fraction of what districts must actually spend to meet students’ needs.

McKinney-Vento funds are distributed to states based on their proportions of Title I, Part A funding. Because the funding formula is not based on the actual number of students experiencing homelessness, researchers note a significant variation in the funding each state receives per identified student experiencing homelessness. Moreover, “because states distribute these limited funds to districts through a competitive grant process, the amount of funding is not proportional to the number of students served, and most districts do not receive these grants at all,” researchers wrote.

The American Rescue Plan Act included $800 million in one-time funding for states to support students experiencing homelessness. The first $200 million was distributed to LEAs on a competitive basis. The second was awarded to LEAs according to formula subgrants that were based on Title I, Part A payments and districts’ identified enrollment of students experiencing homelessness, whichever was greater.

California spending

Only four states, including California, have allocated resources specifically to support students experiencing homelessness.

In 2021, California appropriated $183.3 million in one-time funding to districts through allocations of $1,000 for the more than 183,000 students experiencing homelessness statewide. These funds were to be used to provide supplemental instruction and support to students and to aid with school reopening. Allowable uses include extended learning time, accelerated learning strategies, summer school, tutoring or one-on-one support, professional development, integrated student supports — including health, counseling, and social-emotional well-being supports — and developing community learning hubs. The report notes that while this allocation is generous compared to other states, it is structured as a one-time payment rather than ongoing funding.

Among the report’s recommendations to address the challenges faced by LEAs in supporting homeless youth:

  • Revise the McKinney-Vento funding formula to target funds, at least in part, based on the enrollment of students experiencing homelessness
  • Expand allowable uses of federal funds for supporting students and families experiencing homelessness
  • Improve the quality of information about the use of funds to assist students experiencing homelessness
  • Increase federal and state funding to help LEAs implement the federal protections, services and supports afforded to students experiencing homelessness
    • At the federal level, annual funding for the McKinney-Vento program ($129 million for fiscal year 2023) should be substantially increased to allow LEAs to meet the law’s mandates
    • At the state level, states should provide consistent funding that complements federal funds and is targeted to local needs

Further reading:

CSBA blog: Identification of homeless youth is vital as housing instability increases

CSBA blog: Homeless students require long-term support from schools to improve outcomes

California Schools magazine: “Where they call home: The reinvigorated effort to identify and serve homeless students”

CSBA blog: Supporting homeless students during back-to-school season