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The Alarming Rise in Homeless Students

Some 1.36 million school-aged children — an all-time high — lacked a home of their own in the 2013-2014 school year, new Education Department data show.  They lived temporarily with others, in homeless shelters, on the streets, or in hotels and motels (see chart).  The new figures highlight the urgency of restoring all of the Housing Choice Vouchers lost due to federal budget cuts known as sequestration.

California has a disproportionate share of homeless schoolchildren — over 20 percent of the national total, far exceeding its 12 percent share of the nation’s schoolchildren.

Despite the improving economy, incomes continue to stagnate and rents have risen sharply across much of the country.  As a result, millions of families struggle to keep a roof over their children’s heads.

Homelessness has large negative effects on children.  Studies link homelessness to mental health and physical health problems, as well as poor school performance.  The recent book $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America chronicles the harsh human impact of extreme poverty.  To cite just one example, it describes a mother and her two children who bounced among family members’ houses in search of safe housing but then fled to a local Salvation Army shelter after one of the daughters was sexually abused.

Vouchers are extremely effective at helping families avoid homelessness.  Families in homeless shelters that receive vouchers are 56 percent less likely to become homeless again over the next 20 months than families receiving no assistance, a recent major study found.  Families receiving vouchers also were 55 percent less likely to experience domestic violence, and their children were 42 percent less likely to be placed in foster care or live temporarily with other family members.

Yet the number of vouchers has shrunk in recent years even as more families need assistance.  Some 85,000 fewer families were using vouchers in December 2014 than two years earlier due to sequestration.  Funding that Congress provided in 2014 and 2015 has allowed state and local housing agencies to restore some of the lost vouchers, and the President’s 2016 budget would restore the rest.  It includes funding for 67,000 additional vouchers, 30,000 of which would be targeted to homeless families and other vulnerable groups.  Congress should fund these vouchers as part of a final spending bill for 2016.  

ehren dohler

Coordinator of the Housing Choice Voucher Funding Project