In moments of extreme urgency, it is the responsibility of our national, state, and local policymakers to take clear and immediate steps to protect us, and particularly the most vulnerable amongst us. While the COVID-19 crisis has already dramatically changed daily life for millions of Americans, it threatens to endanger the lives of thousands more due to the sudden withdrawal and closure of key public support systems. Homeless students—pre-K through postsecondary—and their families in particular have been shaken by the retraction and closure of many of these structures and systems, such as public schools, public libraries, and college dormitories. Policymakers at every level—from members of Congress to school-level administrators—must take steps to protect and ensure the safety of homeless students and their families.
Here are five things that policymakers, districts, and schools should be doing right now to support homeless students and their families during the COVID-19 crisis:
1. We all need to eat: Continue to provide meals to homeless students by setting up safe and accessible meal delivery systems for them and their families.
Through the school breakfast and lunch programs, nearly 100,000 schools and other institutions serve almost 45 million meals each day. While physical schools have closed, students still need to eat. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has already granted waivers on how schools can distribute meals, and cities like New York City, where over one in ten students is homeless or lacks stable housing, have begun to find ways to provide meals to students despite schools being closed. It is possible to carry on: it’s simply that innovative and out-of-the-box thinking will be necessary to ensure the delivery of school meals to homeless students outside of school.
Many solutions are feasible, though not simple. For instance, a meal delivery route could be set up along a school’s bus route, or food boxes could be delivered to families who qualify; or the schools could provide delivery of the school meals directly to shelters. Food pickup centers are also an option, although they must be carefully managed to ensure those picking up food can maintain a safe distance.
Colleges and universities must also take steps to ensure that homeless students and students without stable housing are fed. The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University found in 2019 that around half of all two-year students and almost one-third of four-year college students experienced housing insecurity, food insecurity or both. Institutions of higher education should offer an on-site food pantry or extend meal plans during the COVID-19 crisis; or coordinate with food banks in order to make sure enrolled students can still access meals. (If you’re interested in donating to a fund to support college students experiencing homelessness and hunger, check out this student relief fund here.)
2. You need a shelter to shelter in place: Ensure homeless students and their families have a place to stay.
“Shelter in place” only works when students and families have a shelter in the first place. While most homeless shelters have remained open during the crisis, shelters are not without risk, as the first death of a New York City resident in a shelter was reported earlier this week; and there are a large number of homeless students who are not in shelters—those in families who are either doubled up with another family, unaccompanied students who are couch-surfing, or those who are staying in hotels and motels. In New York City alone, there are nearly 74,000 students who “double up” or couch surf like this.
School districts’ McKinney–Vento liaisons—those who have been appointed to carry out that act’s support mandate for homeless youth—should take steps to ensure that homeless students have access to a homeless shelter or other housing arrangement during the COVID-19 crisis. In addition, colleges and universities should not entirely close dorms and on-campus housing, which forces the most vulnerable students out without a place to go or stay. Instead, it is incumbent on institutions of higher education to continue to offer on-campus housing to students who have nowhere else to go, while taking steps to maintain their health and safety: using single-room occupancy and limiting the use of multi-bed units to decrease the likelihood of spreading the virus.
3. Don’t let the digital divide become a digital cliff: Provide online learning opportunities and adequate infrastructure, space, and support for homeless students to be able to access those opportunities.
As physical schools close, schools, districts, colleges, and universities are transitioning to online learning or distance learning. With that transition comes the challenging responsibility to ensure that all of these institutions’ students are supplied with the capabilities to meet and access those learning opportunities. It is likely that this transition will end up exacerbating existing equity gaps for vulnerable populations, with homeless students—less likely to have a laptop, consistent access to the internet, or even a stable place to work and learn—being among the most negatively impacted. The closure of key public resources like libraries removes yet another point of access for homeless students to use the necessary technology and internet infrastructure.
Policy changes have already started making it easier on educational institutions to make good on their access responsibilities. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has already taken action, granting a temporary waiver which would allow schools and districts to receive free technology, though there is still more that the FCC should do, like expanding E-rate and allowing more affordable internet service at the homes of displaced students. State and local policymakers should utilize the waiver and step in to ensure all students have what they need to learn remotely, with the federal government funding the closure of this digital divide. Key items that schools, districts, colleges, and universities can provide include tablets, portable hot-spots, and prepaid cell phones. These items should be delivered to homeless students as quickly as possible so students can continue to learn.
Local governments must also find ways to provide a safe space for students to learn. In New York City, regional enrichment centers have been opened to provide resources and support to the children of emergency workers; but unfortunately, homeless students are not currently eligible to use these spaces. They should be. For those homeless students with disabilities, in order to not run afoul of federal legislation, individualized education plans must be maintained and can be transitioned to virtual meetings and classrooms. Moreover, shelters and hotels—spaces that are currently providing shelter to homeless students and their families—can each set up a designated “e-learning space” for students.
4. If we can’t find kids, we can’t help them: Continue to recognize and protect the invisible homeless students that go unnoticed under ordinary circumstances.
There is already a great deal of difficulty in identifying homeless students in the first place; it’s no surprise, then, that that difficulty is compounded in times of crisis. States and school districts must review and revise their policies and procedures to remove barriers to the identification, enrollment, attendance, and success in school of homeless children and youth, especially in this time of crisis, when liaisons are less likely to be able to identify homeless students, and when the rate of homelessness amongst students is likely to rise as the economic fallout expands. Regional communication between liaisons is also important to maintain during this time, as students who already frequently have to change residences are likely to change them even more frequently in response to school closures and shelter in place orders. If we cannot find students, if we cannot identify students, then we cannot support them.
5. Money talks: Provide dedicated funding for the systems and services that support homeless students and their families every day.
Even on a good day, it takes additional resources and careful coordination between administrators and liaisons to appropriately support and ensure opportunity for homeless students, a fact that Congress has affirmed through the creation of the McKinney-Vento program. In the midst of a crisis like this, with regular public support systems being shut down, additional resources are needed for all of the needs discussed above, and more; and coordination and communication becomes all the more important in order to make sure that homeless students can have their basic and educational needs met. The Education Stabilization Fund in the “phase 3” legislation just passed by Congress is a start, but it is only a band-aid to respond to a subset of the immediate, unexpected needs that educational institutions are facing. Alongside additional investments in emergency aid for our schools and in shoring up our P–12 and postsecondary educational systems as they confront massive revenue gaps, Congress should send substantial dedicated additional funding to the federal McKinney–Vento program, which could be used to not only provide resources but also serve to increase identification of homeless students and serve any students that have recently become homeless as a result of the crisis. For homeless students and others in need at colleges and universities, Congress should increase emergency financial aid offerings to Pell Grant recipients on college campuses, or defer the loans of recently graduated Pell Grant recipients.
Congressionally appropriated funds to any federal program should be structured in a manner which ensures the delivery of the funds to homeless students and a quick, simple disbursement to districts and schools—using an existing funding stream—will ensure this. Additionally, the Department of Education should extend the timeline for the completion of FAFSA (the application for federal student aid for college and university) past June 30 this year, in order to ensure that homeless students—and so many other profoundly impacted students—still have a chance to complete it. Stimulus funds are already addressing the crisis needs of massive private corporations; they should be used to protect homeless students, too.
One thing is for certain: homeless students and their families are amongst the hardest hit in any crisis, and particularly during one, like this one, that deeply impacts our basic social and human services. With the volatility that COVID-19 has wrought and will continue to wreak, we must make a conscious decision to support and protect homeless students across the nation.