Youth homelessness remains a problem in Ohio

By: - January 17, 2022 4:00 am

Students in a classroom. Getty Images.

Statistics don’t tell the whole story as the pandemic throws into sharp relief issues the state’s been having for years, including homelessness and its impact on Ohio students.

While the state has plenty of numbers on school enrollment, proficiency of the students and even the sharp 25% increase in home-schooling that has happened during the pandemic, officials acknowledge the difficulty of tracking students who don’t have a home to go to at the end of the day.

Many different agencies try to keep track of homelessness as a whole, and having multiple counts of a sometimes-transient population can complicate the problem further.

The Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio (COHHIO) has been partnering with the Ohio Department of Education on the topic of student homelessness. But communication director Marcus Roth said homelessness counts in Ohio and across the country range from school district counts to single-day “point-in-time” counts to literal counts of people living on the land as opposed to in shelters.

“We haven’t seen a major increase in homelessness in Ohio, but overall it’s kind of held steady from the best we can tell,” Roth said. “There’s not really been any really reliable data from the state to really tell.”

From a school-aged child perspective, that lack of one solid count to rely on can cause problems that impact a child’s education and whether or not their punished for being truant or deemed chronically absent.

“The visibility of the in-real-time numbers isn’t there, we just see the annual reports and have to figure out … the missing context there,” said Lisa Brooks, youth housing initiative director for COHHIO.

Keeping a count

The state has been studying youth homelessness over the decades, and in the last year saw a decrease of more than 3,000 students reported homeless, from 24,193 in school year 2019-2020 to 21,118 in 2020-2021, which was expected by officials, but not because the issue is fading away.

“A lot of identification (of homelessness) happens when you’re in a brick and mortar school building, or when a bus driver handles transportation,” said Susannah Wayland, homeless education coordinator for the Ohio Department of Education. “We lost that way of verifying everyone.”

The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness used public school data from the U.S. Department of Education to estimate 32,780 students who experienced homelessness over the 2018-19 school year. The council found that 359 of those students were “unsheltered,” 4,800 were housed in shelters, 1,731 lived in hotels/motels, and 25,890 were “doubled up,” meaning they combined with other households to save money or for other reasons.

In the same school year, states around Ohio had less student homelessness, with West Virginia estimated to have 10,522 public school students experiencing homelessness, Kentucky showing 24,177 homeless students and Indiana with 18,252. Pennsylvania was the closest of the surrounding states to Ohio’s homeless student numbers, with an estimated 31,822 students reported homeless over the course of the school year, according to the USICH.

Without students coming to school in-person, school districts were less likely to be able to assess a student’s housing situation, according to Wayland.

“We always know our numbers are underidentified,” Wayland said.

Two problems have continued from the pre-pandemic years until now, which are fear of stigma and lack of knowledge causing families to avoid telling schools they are homeless.

But with federal dollars increasing through existing legislation and coronavirus relief funds, Ohio’s homeless advocates are trying to find a way to get to the students that need help.

McKinney-Vento Law

The state has counted on federal dollars for decades to help with homeless youth in the form of the McKinney-Vento Law, last reauthorized by the federal government in 2015.

The act gives homeless children rights such as:

  • The right to immediate school enrollment even when they may not have previous school records
  • The right to remain in the child’s “school or origin” if it’s in the student’s best interest
  • The right to receive transportation
  • The right to receive “support for academic success”

The funding is given to states annually, which is then distributed by the state through “sub-grants” to school districts. At least 75% of the McKinney-Vento monies has to be distributed to local school districts through sub-grants.

Uses for the grant money are “extensive,” according to the state, but it recommended school districts use the money for things such as clothing, food, medical and dental services, counseling services, along with student and parental outreach services.

“We’re thinking about the whole child in education, and really trying to identify what we would deem to be success for the student,” said Valerie Kunze, assistant director for vulnerable youth programs for the state of Ohio.

Because of the pandemic, the federal government pushed out even more money specifically intended to be used to battle homelessness as job losses soared and Americans battled eviction from their homes.

The American Rescue Plan signed by President Joe Biden in March 2021 allocated $800 million to states for homeless relief, including $29 million in total to Ohio. The money was split into two waves to be used by 2024, according to Wayland.

The funds are meant to be used to address immediate needs for families, like short-term stays at hotels or Wi-Fi hotspots for students. Wayland said it’s up to the districts to decide what’s best for their communities, but she hopes they look at longterm solutions as well as the short-term fixes.

“We’re highly encouraging people to look at…systems and support that could be attached (to school districts) using these funds,” Wayland said.

Round one of the ARP-Homeless dollars came in the spring, and was sent to 30 of the state’s traditional public districts or community schools, districts who had already applied for grants through the McKinney-Vento Act, and districts who had experience using money meant to address homelessness.

Distribution of the second bucket of money comes through a formula that uses the highest homeless student counts from districts in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years, combined with the proportion of Title I funding school districts received in the most recent school year, according to Kunze.

Metro districts in the three Cs have the biggest pools of money in that second allocation, with the Cincinnati City School District getting $1.3 million, the Columbus City School District awarded $1.2 million and the Cleveland City School District receiving $1.164 million, according to data provided by the ODE. Districts like Youngstown, Lorain, Akron, Canton and Toledo all received six-figure sums to help with homelessness in their areas.

Being homeless

Part of the struggle school districts have with identifying homeless students is the stigma attached to being homeless, despite the economic and pandemic-related issues that have befallen many Ohioans.

The other issue is making clear what being homeless means when it comes to be eligible for assistance.

In terms of youth homelessness, the state uses the federal definition from the McKinney-Vento legislature, which is broader than others, identifying homeless students as those who lack a regular, consistent place to sleep. Families who have doubled up could also count, despite not being out on the streets, according to Wayland.

“As you can imagine, people who have a roof over their head don’t consider themselves homeless,” Wayland said.

Because of this, some families don’t indicate to a school district that they are homeless, and therefore miss out on what could be needed aid and assistance. Some districts have to find out through indication of a “temporary” address versus a permanent one on student paperwork, or even through mail that gets returned to the school with an invalid address.

That’s where the homelessness liaisons in schools become most important as an educator and outreach component for schools and communities.

“We need to see opportunities for families to share their homeless status in a way that is informed and educated,” COHHIO’s Brooks said.

As for long-term solutions to the problem, Brooks said the partnerships like the one between COHHIO and the state to teach schools awareness and sensitivity in addressing homeless students will go a long way. What would also help is putting policy in writing that articulate priorities like dedicated homeless liaisons — currently likely to be teachers or school staff with other tasks outside of that role — and the impact of homelessness on students.

“We just have a lack of policies, we don’t have a lot of things written down around what it means to be an unaccompanied minor or what it means to be a homeless youth,” Brooks said.

To have the policies, and the elimination of regulations around truancy that could inadvertently penalize a student for their situation, would mean a starting place from which to build adequate resources, Brooks said.

“Without the services, the liaisons can’t do much,” she said.

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Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.

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