The U.S. Department of Education (ED) recently reported that there were 1,168,354 homeless students enrolled by U.S. preschools and K-12 schools in the 2011-2012 school year – the highest number on record. This does not include the homeless infants and toddlers who were either too young to enroll or not enrolled in public preschool programs.

43 states report an increase from last year, including several states with over 50 percent increase such as North Dakota (212 percent), Maine (58 percent), and North Carolina (53 percent).
The number of homeless children in public schools has increased 72 percent since the beginning of the recession. This comes just weeks after new Census data revealed 16.1 million children, or 21.8 percent, live in poverty in the United States.

This recent data sends a clear message – the recession is still having a significant impact for many children and families in the U.S.

Homelessness negatively impacts every aspect of a child’s life. School can provide a stable environment for homeless children, yet research has shown that students who are homeless and highly mobile have chronically lower academic achievement even when compared to very low-income peers. They face significant barriers to educational success, such as difficulty in meeting enrollment requirements (like providing proof of residency), lack of transportation, lack of school supplies, and lack of other basic necessities such as clothes and food.

Many of these homeless children and families are living in very transient situations and often have to resort to living in motel rooms or a friend’s couch. Luckily, ED recognizes that children living in these situations are homeless and need assistance. Under federal law, school districts are required to immediately enroll homeless children and youth. The law also requires that, when in his or her best interest, schools ensure that homeless students can stay in the same school when forced to move. Every school district must also designate a homeless student liaison to provide assistance and referrals.

Yet the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) does not recognize many of these children and families as homeless and its complex regulations make it impossible for most of them to qualify for HUD Homeless Assistance programs, including access to emergency or transitional shelters. One thing that Congress and the Administration can do right away is to take measures to align HUD’s definition of homeless children with ED so these homeless children and families can be eligible for services that would put them on the path to obtaining stable housing.

November is National Homeless Awareness Month. Let’s take this opportunity and work together to increase access to affordable housing, educational stability and other supportive services that would improve the lives of these homeless students and their families.