Overwhelming evidence shows the detrimental ripple effects of COVID-19 on marginalized communities. In the state of Washington alone, there are 40,000 students experiencing homelessness, 62% of whom are students of color. Mandated school closures mean the loss of a critical lifeline, leaving many students without a stable place for an education, basic needs, and individualized support.
To learn how communities can best support students who are experiencing homelessness in these unprecedented times, the organization that I lead, Building Changes, surveyed school support staff across the state. We received answers from 32 of our state’s 39 counties showing what we already suspected: This crisis amplified the existing challenges related to academic success, housing, and basic needs.
When classrooms shifted to distance learning, access to technology quickly became a primary necessity for students, including those already struggling to meet their daily basic needs. Despite the universal move toward remote learning, survey respondents indicated students still needed internet connection and devices. Preliminary projections predict students returning to school this fall may lose 30% of reading skills and up to a full year’s worth of mathematics skills they would have gained from a typical school year. For students experiencing homelessness, additional education barriers will further exacerbate the widening academic achievement gap.
In our most recent report on K-12 students, we found that only one-third of students experiencing homelessness were proficient in English language arts (ELA) and only a quarter were proficient in mathematics. Proficiency rates were even worse for the majority of students of color. Among the homeless student population, only 21% of students of color were proficient in mathematics compared to 31% of their white peers, and only 30% of students of color experiencing homelessness were proficient in ELA compared to 42% of their white classmates.
About one-fifth of students experiencing homelessness are also enrolled in special education or English-language learner programs. Distance learning can be a complicated and discouraging process for any student, but it is especially true for those who may need extra guidance and must now navigate new learning platforms in an unfamiliar language. The numbers are stacked against students experiencing homelessness, and they will continue to fall further behind if we do not provide adequate support.
In addition to improving access to education, the staff we surveyed also identified food, hygiene supplies and rental assistance as priority needs. Although support staff tirelessly work to connect students to resources, many have found it difficult to keep track of and contact students who already lack a permanent home and can be without reliable means of communication.
All students experiencing homelessness are at risk without stable housing, especially now. As the number of available housing and hygiene facilities outpaces the number of people who need them, health cases continue to rise in shelters. For most of the homeless student population who are temporarily staying with friends and families, or doubled-up, this may not be an option anymore as full households try to maintain social distancing guidelines.
The pandemic has heightened existing anxieties around the lack of job security and basic needs. Our students experiencing homelessness and their families need additional emergency assistance to obtain safe and stable places to live with access to hygiene supplies and facilities in their communities. Housing is a human right, and it is time we ensure every student has their basic needs met before a second wave hits vulnerable communities again. We must work with schools and youth organizations that are already tied to the communities they serve and can make immediate impacts.
Building Changes, in partnership with the Raikes Foundation, launched the Washington State Student and Youth Homelessness COVID-19 Response Fund. We encourage you to contribute to this or any fund that supports local organizations that can directly help students in need. Every dollar from the fund is given to schools and organizations that are working with students and young people, especially in under resourced areas.
Beyond the local level, we must also push for prioritizing federal and state funds for students and young people experiencing homelessness during these unprecedented times. In partnership with Treehouse, we urge Gov. Inslee and Superintendent Reykdal to continue to bolster existing programs, push for resources to meet basic needs, ensure equal access education for all students, and increase support for educators and providers.
Students experiencing homelessness need us more than ever and how we act now to support them will pave the way for their future.
D’Artagnan Caliman is executive director of Building Changes, a Seattle-based nonprofit dedicated to preventing and ending homelessness in Washington state.
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