Child, youth, and family homelessness is up significantly over the last year, according to two separate sets of new data. And yet, both reports also underestimate the problem.  

Figures from the U.S. Department of Education released in late 2023 show that homelessness among public school students increased by nearly 10 percent in the 2021-2022 school year, and that since the 2006-2007 school year student homelessness is up 77 percent. More than 1.2 million public school students from pre-K through grade 12 experienced homelessness in 2021-2022. 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reports a 12 percent increase in overall homelessness from the previous year in recently released figures, with a 16 percent increase in homelessness among families with children and a 15 percent increase among youth on their own. 

These unfortunate increases are not surprising. Child and youth homelessness was on the rise even before the outbreak of COVID-19, and since then, the high cost of rent and food combined with the loss of the improved Child Tax Credit and some other vital assistance means that increasing numbers of children, youth, and families are struggling with homelessness and poverty and the trauma associated with these ills. 

The news is even worse than it sounds: These staggering numbers still greatly underestimate the problem. Federal data has long underestimated the prevalence of child, youth, and family homelessness in the United States. In particular, data from HUD reflects a narrow definition of homelessness that excludes most children and youth experiencing homelessness from being counted or receiving or even being assessed for assistance. 

Homeless children, youth, and families must stay where they can due to a lack of alternatives and/or fear of authorities and are often forced to bounce around between temporary situations. Many communities do not have family or youth shelters, and even when they do, shelters are often full. Shelter policies may also prevent families from staying together or may restrict the length of stay. As a result, homeless children and youth often end up staying in motel rooms or temporarily with friends or others, hiding them from the community and disconnecting them from assistance. The temporary nature of these situations creates frequent upheaval, volatility, and a loss of stability for children, disrupting their education, health care, and other needs. 

HUD’s definition of homelessness does not include children, youth, and families in these hidden situations, despite extensive evidence that homelessness has grave consequences for children and youth regardless of where they find a place to sleep on a given night. As a result, public schools remain the most accurate source of data on child and youth homelessness in the U.S., even accounting for school closures during COVID-19, which made it harder than usual for school personnel to identify students experiencing homelessness. Point-in-time counts, a main source of homelessness data for HUD, have always undercounted the number of homeless children and youth since most of them do not experience the visible homelessness these counts capture. The pandemic exacerbated the undercount because HUD had fewer trained and willing volunteers to conduct these annual counts. 

How to Address Increasing Rates of Child, Youth, and Family Homelessness 

Child and youth homelessness was a persistent and growing problem in the U.S. even before the outbreak of COVID-19, yet time and again lawmakers fail to make children and youth experiencing homelessness a policy priority. For example, families with children represent a decreasing share of subsidized housing residents, including for housing choice vouchers. In 2009, 52% of voucher recipients were households with children. By 2022, they made up just 39% of recipients

Homeless children and youth were also largely excluded or not prioritized for emergency rental assistance, eviction moratoriums, emergency housing vouchers and other aid passed by Congress to address the COVID-related economic crisis. These measures were intended to help households experiencing homelessness or on the brink of homelessness, yet they often passed over many families doubling up with others or staying in motels.  

Congress must prioritize homeless children and youth for housing and homelessness interventions by reforming both assistance systems and continuing investments in public schools to provide homeless students and their families with wraparound services. First Focus Campaign for Children recommendations include: 

1.Pass the Homeless Children and Youth Act (H.R. 5221) 

HUD’s narrow definition of homelessness forces millions of homeless children and youth to remain in dangerous living situations, and creates communities of hidden homeless children, youth, and families that are not competitive for public or private funding for assistance. At the same time, these children may be identified as homeless and highly vulnerable by other federal agencies, such as the Department of Education or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Congress must streamline the definition of homelessness, reform federal homeless assistance, and improve federal data as proposed in the bipartisan Homeless Children and Youth Act (H.R. 5221) reintroduced by Reps. Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ) and Bill Posey (R-FL) in the 118th Congress. 

2. Continue investment in ARP-HCY Funds 

The American Rescue Plan included a one-time pot of funding of $800 million for homeless children and youth enacted through a bipartisan amendment in response to the exclusion of homeless children and youth from other pandemic packages. The funds are flexible and allow schools to identify and directly support children experiencing homelessness, including through wrap-around services and short-term emergency housing. However, ARP-HCY funds must be obligated by September 30, 2024, which means they cannot be used for the remainder of the 2024-2025 school year, even though the need is greater now than it was during the pandemic. Congress should extend the ARP-HCY deadline to allow state and local agencies to use these funds for the entirety of the 2024-2025 school year. In addition, Congress should continue to invest this same amount and to permit the flexibility allowed under ARP-HCY in the annual McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth program. 

3. Pass the Family Stability and Opportunity Vouchers Act (S. 1257/H.R. 3776) 

The bipartisan and bicameral Family Stability and Opportunity Vouchers Act (S. 1257/H.R. 3776), reintroduced by Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Todd Young (R-IN) and Reps. Joe Neguse (D-CO) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), would help make children a priority for housing assistance by establishing 250,000 new housing vouchers specifically for families with children. These vouchers would be paired with housing counseling services aimed at helping households with children move to higher opportunity neighborhoods.  

4. Establish a national renter tax credit program 

The federal government distributed $80 billion in housing tax benefits in 2020, 80% of which went to homeowners. The tax code must similarly accommodate renters. Creating a properly designed and implemented national renter tax credit would help meet renters’ needs by delivering resources directly to families and reaching many more families than are currently served by rental assistance

To be effective, a national renter tax credit must be: 

  • Fully refundable, meaning families do not need tax liability to receive the full credit 
  • Large enough to relieve the housing cost burden of low-income families, and ensure that, at a minimum, they spend no more than 30% of their income on rent 
  • Delivered monthly when rent is due and include a safe harbor provision so families are not at risk of owing more at tax time 
  • Able to support families with children by adjusting for family size, inflation, and geographic differences in rent costs 
  • Available to families who lack a formal lease but are still paying rent or a motel bill 
  • Accompanied by a national emergency rental assistance program to help prevent evictions for families who experience a drop in income or resources 
  • Layered on top of already existing subsidies such as the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), so that it complements — not replaces — assistance families are already receiving 
  • Simple and user-friendly so it does not impose burdensome taxpayer compliance requirements 
  • Available to households regardless of immigration status 

Lawmakers should model this effort on the Internal Revenue Service’s successful delivery of monthly Child Tax Credit payments in 2021. The Rent Relief Act (H.R. 6721), led by Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL) in the 118th Congress, provides one design approach. The HOME Act, from Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), provides another approach, pairing a renter tax credit that adjusts for family size with solutions to housing shortages.