Ensuring School Stability for Children Experiencing Homelessness

Paying to Transport Homeless Children vs. Creating Affordable Housing to Prevent Homelessness

McKinney-Vento legislation requires school districts of children experiencing homelessness to transport children to their schools of origin before they were homeless. 

Earlier this year, an article in The Seattle Times examined “Why districts spend millions to keep homeless students in place: ‘Changing schools is the last thing we want.”

The idea behind the federal McKinney-Vento legislation is that being able to attend their school of origin provides stability at a time when families face instability. Children see the stability of the same teachers and regular meals at school.  School districts transport students to their schools of origin by school bus or in some localities by taxi.

Children experiencing homelessness who attend the same schools are much more likely to graduate from high school on time. Moving school to school and adjusting to new teachers and friends takes time. And imagine if a student had to do that every year? Or even a few times a year? And think about the days and weeks of class that students may miss as they register at new schools or gather the paperwork necessary for school registration.

Event with positive educational outcomes tied to helping students remain in the same schools, the federal government is not reimbursing local school districts for their transportation costs.

And could this lack of reimbursement to local school districts perpetuate the homelessness crisis?  If students drop out of high school, they are much more unlikely to find employment that would allow them to afford their own homes.  Whether they are able to stay with their own families in emergency shelters or with family and friends, they may at some point as young adults experience homelessness themselves and be forced to live on the streets.

Some advocates working to end homelessness may question whether the money spent to transport children experiencing homelessness might be better spent on creating affordable housing. If more affordable housing was developed so that families never faced homelessness or so those at risk of homelessness were able to afford their own homes, would the cost of busing and transportation even be necessary?

Across the country, initiatives are developing affordable housing near hospitals that will address the issues of the expenses tied to individuals experiencing homelessness who repeatedly use hospital emergency departments and the need for affordable housing for hospitals.  Could similar initiatives nearby schools in neighborhoods with high rates of family homelessness offer affordable housing to families so that they are not forced to move away from their neighborhoods and have their children bused back to their schools?

There is research from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty that supports that housing students experiencing homelessness is less expensive than transporting them to their original school districts.

A program in Washoe County, Washington is funded by the state to assist families experiencing homelessness with housing they can afford in their school district. The state spends a total of $2 million a year to pay for critical rental assistance and a variety of things beyond that including transportation needs, emergency shelter, tutoring, and training for school staff.

The results of this program are very impressive:

“The program helped boost graduation rates for homeless seniors to 72% in North Thurston schools last year and 100% in South Whidbey this year. (Statewide, the average graduation rate for homeless students was just 55% in 2017.)”

Those districts tapped the state grants to hire new academic coaches.
‘Schools can’t do it alone, and housing providers can’t do it alone,’ Jordan said.”

Katara Jordan works for Building Changes, a Seattle nonprofit that works to end family and youth homelessness in Washington state.

But until enough affordable housing is developed near all schools, it is critical that both local communities receive federal reimbursement for transportation at the same time that more affordable housing is created.