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Homelessness, Lack of Education Reinforce Each Other, Chapin Hall Report Says

homeless: Child of color falling asleep at school desk.

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Homelessness and a lack of education for unaccompanied youth are intertwined. Young adults who do not finish high school or get a GED are 4.5 times more likely to experience homelessness than stably housed youths. Conversely, youth who experience homelessness are more than two-thirds as likely to not be enrolled in a four-year college program, according to the latest report in a series by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.  

“We know that this time in people’s lives is really sensitive and it’s a period of time when they get to explore who they are and who they want to be, and we really see that homlessness inhibits those opportunities,” said Melissa Kull, the lead researcher for Chapin Hall for this brief. “For young people who are not pursuing their education, that have dropped out of school, it becomes more difficult for them to then to exit homelessness because they often don’t have strong careers with growth potential that will help them to advance their economic mobility. And then the same thing on the other side, we saw that for young people who were homeless, we saw that they were more likely to be leaving school and to not be advancing their careers.”

The report analyzed data and in-depth interviews from the Voices of Youth Count, a national research and policy initiative focusing on homeless unaccompanied youth ages 13 to 25 that gathered data on this understudied population in the summer of 2016. It also incorporated findings on homelessness and unstable housing from the #RealCollege survey about the daily experiences and daily needs of college students conducted by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice.  

“Education in some ways is a bit of an unsung hero in our overall federal interagency efforts,” said Christina Dukes, the federal liaison for the National Center for Homeless Education. She was part of a working group that gave feedback on an earlier version of the brief. “I think having a growing research base that helps us appreciate in a very clear way the value of education for preventing and ending youth homelessness … is going to be really important.”

Systemic Fixes, Local Programs Advised

Recommendations for how systems and communities can work together to prevent homelessness and dropping out of school emphasize early intervention and systemic fixes: housing stability, access to educational opportunities and identifying common factors such as poverty and trauma. It also recommends bottom-up approaches, such as encouraging school districts to work together to share student records more efficiently to help prevent disruption when youth switch schools. 

John Parvensky, the acting executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless and the CEO of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, said he was looking forward to reading the report. 

“Not knowing where you’re going to be the next day, the next week, next month creates a lot of trauma and a lot of challenges,” he said about the effect of homelessness on young people. 

He thinks more coordination between systems, schools and communities, more resources and counselors targeting early intervention, and ideally more funding will be helpful, but only to a point because of the lack of housing in many cities across the U.S.

“It would be kind of akin to having new nurses in the school but no place to have them refer people who need hospitalization,” Parvensky said. 

He pointed to the disconnect in definitions for “homeless” between the Department of Housing and Urban Development and other agencies working on the issue, such as the Department of Education, as the main source of the problem. 

HUD uses a much narrower definition that does not include people who, for example, move between homes sleeping on couches. Without a more expansive definition, Parvensky said, there will not be enough resources to properly house everyone who needs housing. Expand the definition and expand the resources, he said, and the country can get at the root of the homelessness crisis. 

“That’s when we’re going to see a change in the outcomes in terms of the needs of homeless youth and students,” he said.

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