The return to everyday life following the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t mean an end to its deep disruptions.
Nationwide, the dual crises of increasing homelessness and challenges in identifying homeless students are leading to chronic absences and declines in K-12 enrollment. These disturbing trends have long-term consequences: they all contribute to the likelihood that a student won’t complete high school — the single greatest factor for homelessness for young people.
Education is a critical intervention to preventing cycles of homelessness. Washington U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell have long been champions for vulnerable children, and by championing legislation to increase federal funding for homeless students, they can uphold the promise that all students deserve a chance at success.
In Vancouver Public Schools, we have seen firsthand the crisis of homelessness among students. There were 1,018 students identified as homeless in district classrooms by the end of the 2019-2020 school year, but when COVID-19 hit, that number fell to 789 at the end of the 2020-2021 year.
This isn’t good news. It shows the pandemic affected our ability to identify students experiencing homelessness. For us to support students experiencing homelessness, we first need to know who and where they are.
Here, however, we see proof of our district’s smart investment in the identification of these students. The model used COVID relief funds secured through a bipartisan amendment to the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act to hire a Homeless Outreach Promoting Education Program advocate, whose data showed the need for increasing capacity and making caseload size more manageable.
We also hired a second unaccompanied youth advocate to assist in identifying, meeting with, and supporting youth who are homeless on their own in the district. With these funds, the end of the 2021-22 school year saw 1,103 students identified as experiencing homelessness in the district.
As of Dec. 7, 2022, there are 948 — a high number for that point in the school year, but still a positive example of the district’s productive investments.
These funds were intended as a one-time response to the crisis of the pandemic, but the crisis of youth homelessness is far from over. Our district is an example of how effective it can be to target federal education funds on student homelessness.
Building on what we’ve already done, sustaining funds will allow us to continue and strengthen the supports the education COVID-relief funds already enabled us to provide. As important as good intentions and a refined action plan are to supporting students experiencing homelessness, we still need money behind it.
Fortunately, Sens. Murray and Cantwell have a track record of supporting homeless and foster youth in Washington, as did former Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler. As Congress considers future budgets, we urge lawmakers to continue this support by continuing the COVID-era investment in the education of homeless children and youth.
The pieces needed to do this work are already on the board — we only need Washington’s legislators to make the right move and vocally support sustaining COVID homeless education levels of funding for students experiencing homelessness.
By working together, we can truly deliver on the promise that every student has the opportunity to succeed.
Melissa Newhouse is a homeless and foster care liaison for Vancouver Public Schools, and Tanisha Harris is an unaccompanied youth advocate for the district. They submitted this as private citizens, not representatives of Vancouver Public Schools.