420,000 homeless kids went missing from schools’ rolls last year. They may never be found
Schools can help homeless students fight eviction, find a backpack or even deal with a funeral. But first educators have to find them
This story about homeless students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.
A week before school started in the sunny desert city of St. George, Utah, Mike Carr waited at the front desk of the only emergency youth shelter in this southern Utah county.
He noticed a young mother on a sectional couch in the living room swaddling her infant in a pink blanket, idly watching a Marvel movie. In the neighboring kitchen, some teenagers — each a potential student that Carr hoped to talk to — prepared lunch before retiring to one of the shelter’s 15 beds.
Carr runs a one-person department dedicated to working with homeless students and their families in the sprawling Washington County School District. He used to visit this shelter regularly, but he’s only been here a handful of times in the last 18 months. The coronavirus pandemic kept this small facility on lockdown for much of that time, and Carr mostly stayed quarantined at home to protect his wife, who has preexisting health conditions.
But with mere days before the start of classes in mid-August, Carr scrambled to meet any young people he could at one of the three shelters in St. George. He also knocked on the doors of hotels and motels and slowly drove past the city’s parks, looking for any youth camping out in the triple-degree heat.
It’s a late-summer routine that Carr, the homeless education liaison for Washington County School District, and many of his counterparts across the U.S. have relied on for years to find and identify students without a regular address. But the task felt even more urgent to Carr this year after he’d lost track of about 400 students last school year, more than a third of Washington County’s typical number of homeless kids. They disappeared from the district’s rolls not because their families somehow found permanent housing during the pandemic, but rather because many unhoused children never enrolled in school at all.
“They’re in survival mode and don’t even know where to look for help,” Carr said. “It’s my job to track them down.”
Despite reports of increasing homelessness throughout the country, a national survey last fall estimated approximately 420,000 students experiencing homelessness went missing from school districts’ rolls during the pandemic. And many of the methods usually used to find and enroll these kids — teacher referrals, in-person searches, visits to classrooms — were unavailable to homeless education liaisons like Carr last year. But even as most schools resume in-person instruction this year, Carr’s job may not be easier. As of October, his count of homeless students was still just 404, about half of what he would expect by this point in the year.
In March, federal lawmakers approved $800 million to help school districts identify, enroll and support homeless students — about eight times the amount appropriated for the McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Youth program in fiscal year 2021 and more than the combined funding for the program in the last 10 years. Bureaucratic red tape, however, has hampered the distribution of those funds, and it’s unclear how well — or even whether — the money will be available to help families maintain stable housing after the recent expiration of the federal eviction moratorium. Now, with potentially tens of thousands of students still disconnected from school — often the only place where they receive warm meals and showers — homeless advocates worry some children may never enroll again.
“It’s still confusing to me,” Carr said. “I should have lots more (homeless students) given the number of people without jobs and not being able to pay rent. I don’t really know where the kids have gone.”
Between 2009 and 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, the number of students experiencing homelessness in the U.S. rose by about 45%, to just below 1.4 million, according to the National Center for Homeless Education. The bulk of that growth came from students staying temporarily with friends and family, known as “doubling up.” About 84% of homeless students double up or stay in hotels and motels. That’s the count used by the U.S. Department of Education, which oversees the primary source of federal funding for homeless students, known as McKinney-Vento after the 1987 law that provides for the funding. That money is meant to provide homeless students with a federally guaranteed set of supports — free medical care, extra tutoring and free rides to school, among others. But it does not provide housing support.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is in charge of helping families struggling with homelessness with housing assistance, but it does not count kids staying with friends or in motels in its definition of “homeless.” The undercount means the families of 4 out of 5 homeless children receive no federal assistance to secure a permanent or temporary home. That’s despite research showing that the academic outcomes for students who are doubled-up are just as poor as for their peers living on the streets, in motels or in shelters.
For years, the U.S. Conference of Mayors has found lack of affordable housing to be the primary cause of homelessness among families. That’s true in St. George, where the average rent for a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment soared nearly 75% in just five years, from $690 in 2016 to $1,204 in the second quarter of 2021.
The rapidly growing city, located on Utah’s southern border with Arizona, attracts residents and retirees from more costly locales, like California, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. With access to five national parks and the attraction of the annual Ironman North American championship hosted by St. George, hotels and motels — often a lifeline for families that can’t afford upfront rental costs like deposits — are expensive here.
“We are in a crisis in Utah, period, but especially in St. George,” said Linda Stay, development director for Switchpoint Community Resource Center, the only emergency shelter for families in southern Utah. “Our housing market — there’s absolutely nothing available. We can’t recruit teachers or police because even they can’t afford housing here.”
That wasn’t the case when Carr first moved to St. George to attend school in 1974, when Dixie State University was known as Dixie College and, according to Carr, the city had just one traffic light. Nearly four decades later, 2020 census data ranks St. George as the third fastest-growing metro area in the country.
The rapid growth has strained the community’s low-income residents, many of whom work in low-wage service jobs to support the tourism economy. Carr first noticed their struggle during his 18 years as an elementary school counselor, as more and more kids trickled into his office needing new shoes or winter coats. His job, confined to one building, seemed manageable then, but Carr now serves as the main support for hundreds of children in a school district spanning 2,430 square miles.
His already difficult job proved nearly impossible after March 2020, when schools across Utah and the country shuttered to slow the spread of COVID-19. To protect his wife, Carr continued working from home even after Washington County schools welcomed students back to campus in fall 2020. It was a necessary precaution, but it didn’t help him find kids.
“I felt isolated not only from co-workers but also from the families we’re trying to help,” he said.
During the 2020-21 school year, Carr worked almost entirely via computer and over the phone — making repeat calls and sending multiple emails to families who had received homeless services the previous year but never sent their kids back to class. On just three occasions, Carr allowed co-workers to visit — masked, gloved and from 6 feet apart on his doorstep — in order to collect necessary paperwork or supplies so they could help the few homeless students who returned to school in person.
“I’m like, ‘This seems opposite of what should be happening,’” Carr said he remembers thinking of the shrinking number of homeless students during the 2020-21 school year. “Maybe people have just hunkered down with their families to stay safe.”
In July, Carr returned to his office, having visited it only infrequently the previous school year. Within a few weeks, there was once again a clutter of folders on his desk, including one for “Funeral Help,” and a collage of sticky notes with the names and contact information of people who may be able to assist students and families.
Moments after Carr sat down at his desk on a recent afternoon in August, his phone rang for the third time that hour. It was a mother, who had somehow found his direct line and wanted to know if her family would qualify for assistance. They were living at an RV campground and needed water and electricity hookups.
“Yes, that would qualify,” Carr told her after listening to her situation. “You can choose whatever school meets their needs,” he added, referring to her children.
He noted down the name of the kids’ regular babysitter, a potentially crucial connection should he lose contact with the parent.
“A lotta times, people at the schools don’t even know what I do for the families,” he said later.
Each summer, homeless liaisons like Carr go looking for the kids who were on their list the previous school year to see if they still qualify for services. The liaisons also look for newly homeless students by going door to door at shelters and motels, and by acting on tips from teachers. Only once they can confirm that the children are still in need can they sign them up for services. Though this process ensures that students who are no longer in need are not erroneously offered services, it can slow down the already complicated job of connecting children experiencing homelessness to the McKinney-Vento services that offer a bit of stability in their unpredictable lives.
For some students, last year may have forever destroyed even those tenuous links to stability. In Dallas, roughly 12,000 students failed to show up for the first week of class this fall, according to local media reports. The University of Michigan in August released a new report that estimated Detroit schools had failed to identify as many as 88% of homeless students before COVID-19, and the study’s authors speculated that the pandemic will only make the undercount worse.
In late July, House Democrats introduced legislation to extend a pandemic-inspired federal moratorium on evictions through the end of 2021. A related bill was referred the Senate education committee. Neither bill went anywhere.
President Joe Biden reinstated the eviction moratorium in August anyway, only to have the U.S. Supreme Court rule the extension unconstitutional. The Supreme Court decision arrived just days after the U.S. Treasury Department reported that state and local governments had distributed only 11% of the $46 billion that Congress approved in rental assistance for millions of tenants at risk of eviction.
Even before the expiration of the federal moratorium, the Utah Investigative Journalism Project last year found landlords filed hundreds of eviction notices each month in Utah despite the ban. And some families voluntarily vacated their homes knowing a formal notice could soon appear on their front doors, said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a national nonprofit working to overcome homelessness through education based in Washington, D.C.
The fear of looming evictions prompted many school district liaisons to partner with eviction courts and legal aid organizations to help families fight eviction notices and stay in their homes, Duffield added.
“It’s still shocking to me how the role of schools responding to the eviction crisis is not fully appreciated,” she said.
On an August morning in St. George, when the temperature reached 90 degrees before 10 a.m., Carr loaded boxes of pencils, notebooks, scissors and other school supplies onto the utility trailer of a volunteer’s pickup truck. He pulled himself into the passenger seat and greeted a second volunteer sitting behind him.
During the drive to a district warehouse, where they would retrieve hundreds of backpacks for a school supply drive, the second volunteer — a St. George native — asked Carr who would receive the backpacks.
“We have maybe 700 kids considered homeless,” Carr told the volunteer, who seemed shocked. The volunteer said he never imagined there could be homeless children in southern Utah.
Later, Carr reflected on how often he encounters this reaction when he explains his job.
“People think we’re wealthy and fine,” he said. “When I go around and say, 41% of our students qualify for free lunch, no one can believe that. When I give the homeless numbers, they go, ‘Wait, we have homeless kids?’”
Despite many residents’ ignorance of the extent of homelessness in Washington County, a tally of in-kind and cash donations to Carr’s department easily tops $300,000 each year — about five times his total budget of $60,000 from the district and state. The state’s portion is almost entirely federal McKinney-Vento money, passed on to local school districts through a grant application process. The number of homeless students in a district does not necessarily change the size of the grant the district receives, as the money is distributed in a lump sum, not based on a per-student formula.
Over the next three years, though, the $800 million from the federal government could radically transform how Carr and other liaisons do their job. It’s more money than the feds have given to support homeless students in the past 10 years combined, according to Duffield, and comes with few strings attached. School districts can even spend the cash on temporary housing for families.
But the funding, which Biden signed into law last March, took months to land in local coffers. In August, Carr joined a Zoom meeting with other school district liaisons in Utah and an official from the State Board of Education. The official informed them that the state had barely two weeks to submit a plan on how to spend about $500,000 in new funding to help homeless students, a rushed timeline that baffled Carr.
“Here we are at the start of the school year, when everyone’s slammed, making this big of a decision?” he muttered on mute.
Still, the brainstorming session yielded several ideas on how to spend the money in new ways: Meals for students on nights and weekends, mental health care and therapists, cellphones for families. Carr’s contribution: paying for housing application fees.
In other parts of the country, Duffield has heard from liaisons who want to pay for new wellness centers at schools or housing navigators for parents. The problem with executing those ideas, she noted, is that many workers like Carr are exhausted.
“You finally have the time to dream big, but you’re burnt to a crisp,” Duffield said.
That’s true for Carr. After seven years on the job, he plans to retire after the next school year.
“When I started, I wanted to solve the world,” he said, “but I realized you can’t by yourself.”
He had hoped, with the extra federal money arriving soon, to hire additional staff to help specifically with his search and support for homeless youth who lack parents or guardians. He also imagined one of the new hires could eventually succeed him. But he said the superintendent rejected that idea, mostly because the school district — like many across the nation — is already having trouble finding qualified staff for their open positions.
For now, Carr will continue doing the job on his own.