For thousands of Philadelphia kids, the return to school this fall was made more difficult because they don’t have a secure place to call home.
During the 2021-2022 school year, the most recent data available, the School District of Philadelphia identified 4,675 children as homeless.
Counting students was difficult during the COVID pandemic, making year-over-year comparisons difficult, but the most recent numbers are up 9.7% compared to the 2018-2019 school year, when the count was 4,261.
Research suggests the actual numbers are even higher. Pennsylvania lags other states in identifying youth who are homeless, and data collected for the 2018-2019 school year suggests Philadelphia in particular underreports. This is particularly true for students who attend charter schools.
Schools struggle to identify students who are homeless for a variety of reasons, as a recent study in Detroit makes clear. The study highlights parent and guardian lack of awareness about resources available, limited trust from parents in sharing their housing circumstances and insufficient support from schools when parents do share this information.
As a professor of counseling who researches homelessness, and a former school counselor who has examined the challenges educators face in supporting homeless youth, I know it is critical that parents and guardians understand their children’s rights at school to ensure their kids get the support they need.
Know your rights
Living on the streets is only one of many ways kids experience housing loss.
In Pennsylvania, 65% of students experiencing homelessness live in doubled-up situations – sharing housing temporarily with other people. This includes living in cramped apartments with other families, or regularly moving between friends’ or relatives’ houses. About 22% live in shelters or transitional housing. Others live in hotels or motels, and about 2% are unsheltered.
Given this complexity, some families may not understand they qualify for resources available to the homeless. Educators may also be unsure.
When students without stable housing are not properly identified, they miss out on support under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a federal law that is designed to provide protection and assistance for students experiencing homelessness who attend public schools, and Pennsylvania’s Education for Homeless Children and Youth State plan.
These services are designed to remove barriers to their enrollment, attendance and success in school.
For example, students who are identified as homeless can enroll in schools even when they lack immediate access to paperwork such as educational records, immunization records and proof of residency within the school district. They can receive free transportation to and from their current school even if they move out of the district. They can also receive support from a “homeless liaison,” a person who ensures the school is meeting the McKinney-Vento requirements, and they qualify for free school breakfast and lunch.
The Philadelphia school district has an Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities specifically designed to help students understand their rights, including supporting students experiencing homelessness. Homeless liaisons and other staff work with the office to identify students. According to its website, the office provides tutoring, supports student enrollment and transfers, offers school supplies and uniforms, and hosts a teen program with an array of services, including college preparation.
What parents can do
Facing housing insecurity is stressful for parents, guardians and kids. To increase the likelihood for a successful school year, parents can take these steps:
1. Learn your child’s rights: Parents can ensure their children are getting the services and supports they are afforded under McKinney-Vento, such as transportation to their current school if they move temporarily out of the district. Reviewing these parent resources is a good place to start.
2. Contact the school’s homeless liaison: It’s important for parents to inform the school’s liaison of their family’s housing status and if they have moved. Liaisons can provide information about what happens next and what resources are available. This directory lists all of the liaisons in Pennsylvania.
3. Decide who else should know: Liaisons will keep information about students’ housing status confidential unless parents want them to inform the child’s teachers or other school personnel. Sharing that information can be helpful. For instance, if inconsistent housing will impact the child’s ability to complete homework or attend school regularly, their teachers can, for example, support the child by being more flexible with deadlines.
4. Connect with the school counselor and social worker: These are trusted adults within the school system who are trained to provide families with the support they need in a safe and confidential space. They can connect parents and students with the homeless liaison and resources within the school and in the community.
5. Request electronic records: Parents should try to save all emails that contain educational records from any school their child attended each year. Should housing circumstances lead families to move quickly, these records will be easy to transfer to the new school. While previous schools should eventually transfer records, having a record of grades and coursework helps ensure that a student is placed in the appropriate courses as soon as they start at a new school.
6. Notify the school of any move: If families need to move outside of their current school district, they should notify their child’s school as soon as possible. Students may be able to continue at their current school despite their new address. Research shows that feeling connected to friend groups as well as teachers improves high school graduation rates. Maintaining these relationships over time can benefit students experiencing homelessness.