Edith Yang, Assistant Director of Communications, Building Changes
Students experiencing homelessness lag academically behind their housed peers. As federal support funds diminish, statewide programs offer hope.
Washington State – November 2, 2023: Building Changes released a comprehensive report on academic outcomes for students experiencing homelessness in Washington’s K-12 public schools. The report shows that 39,801 students are experiencing homelessness and the majority (64%) are youth of color. Those experiencing homelessness fare worse academically than their housed peers. While federal pandemic aid temporarily increased resources for identification and support services in schools, those funds are dwindling. Two statewide programs, the Homeless Student Stability Program (HSSP) and the Washington Youth and Families Fund (WYFF), provide tailored support services to stem the homelessness crisis and bridge academic gaps. However, public dollars continue to fall short on addressing the crisis, and more private funding is needed from philanthropy, corporations, and the community.
The report sheds light on the 2021-2022 academic year. This was the first year students were required to attend school full-time in person since the height of pandemic. During that time, school districts identified 39,801 students as experiencing homelessness. Across the board, unhoused students did worse than their housed peers. This academic gap demonstrates how housing insecurity may be a contributing factor to the well-documented racial education gap.
- Only 24% of students experiencing homelessness were proficient in English Language Arts (ELA) compared to 53% of housed students.
- Only 14% of students experiencing homelessness were proficient in Math compared to 40% of housed students.
- Students experiencing homelessness had a higher rate of enrollment in special education programs (21%) compared to housed students (14%).
“Young people already have an enormous amount of pressure between school, relationships, social media, and what is happening in our world,” said Daniel Zavala, executive director at Building Changes. “Imagine not knowing where you are going to sleep at night. This reality for so many makes it nearly impossible to show up every day ready to learn and focus on your homework. Conversely, stable housing is a springboard for academic success.”
To address the student homelessness crisis, pandemic-driven federal funds, such as the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief – Homeless Children and Youth Fund (ARP-HCY), were distributed to schools across the country. Washington State received over $12 million in ARP-HCY funds to help expand on identification and provide holistic support for students experiencing homelessness. Those remaining emergency dollars are dwindling. This is contributing to fewer staff hours to identify, counsel, and direct homeless students to community-based programs.
Two statewide school-and community-based programs—HSSP and WYFF—are successful at addressing the needs of students experiencing homelessness because they can provide tailored, culturally-appropriate solutions for young people and their families. This fills service gaps in homeless and housing programs where children, youth, and families are often deprioritized in services.
“Each child’s experience with homelessness is personal, and we need to meet them where they’re at,” said Zavala. “We need to connect them to community-based organizations that know who they are, what they need, and can be a lifeline for resources. It should not be a child’s burden to navigate complex systems while struggling in school and worrying about where they’re going to sleep.”
HSSP is the first program of its kind in the nation, requiring coordination between education and housing services. Grants are made to both school districts and organizations to identify students experiencing homelessness, coordinate support, and provide housing resources. HSSP improves school staff capacity to help unhoused students graduate from high school, address mental health needs, and streamline referrals to services in the community. Community-based organizations funded by HSSP connect students and families with housing services and can provide flexible funding to help them with urgent needs such as emergency rental assistance, move-in costs, and utility payments.
WYFF combines public and private dollars to grant funds to organizations and tribes providing housing support services to youth and families experiencing homelessness. Because grantees are community-based, they understand their community members’ culture and specific needs. WYFF grantees support youth exiting systems of care (such as foster care, juvenile detention, or behavioral health facilities) to access the skills, education, and employment needed to be stably housed. WYFF grantees also provide Diversion services for youth and families. Diversion is an approach that can help people quickly resolve a housing crisis through creative problem solving, light case management, and flexible funding that can be used to cover needs such as first and last months’ rent, security deposits, utility payments, eviction debt, and car repair.
Earlier this year, Washington’s legislators approved $9 million toward HSSP and $5 million toward WYFF for the next two years. However, this public funding alone falls far short in addressing the breadth of the student homelessness crisis. Contributions to statewide efforts, such as WYFF, are needed from philanthropy, corporations, and community members to bridge the gap created by dwindling funds.
“As a society, we must come together to ensure that no students’ promise of a quality education is overshadowed by their housing status,” said Zavala. “Only through our collective commitment can we end student homelessness. This is not a choice, but a moral imperative for the future of our young people, our families, and our communities.”
Building Changes advances equitable responses to homelessness in Washington State, with a focus on children, youth, and families and the systems that serve them. We believe that communities thrive when people have safe and stable housing and can equitably access and use services.