On Wednesday, May 19, 2021, the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education of the House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing, “Picking up the Pieces: Strengthening Connections with Students Experiencing Homelessness and Children in Foster Care.” The witnesses included Ms. Jennifer Erb-Downward, Senior Research Associate, Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan, Michelle Linder-Coates, Executive Director, School District of Philadelphia, Ms. Gretchen Davis, Foster Parent, Arlington , VA, Dr. James F. Lane, Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction, Virginia Department of Education.
For observers attempting to learn of the pandemic’s impact on homeless children and children in foster care the hearing may have been a disappointment as members continually cycled back to criticizing schools for not being open. Ranking Member Congressman Burgess Owens (R-UT) singled out unions for blame in his opening remarks. It was a constant theme during the question and answer period by members of the Subcommittee.
Gretchen Davis described her experiences as a foster parent caring for two young girls at the outset of the pandemic and the challenges of providing education for her two foster children as well as her own three children. The family was reunified, and she has continued to work with the family. Much of her commentary and response to questions focused on her displeasure with the school district in Alexandria, Virginia. She said that all schools should have reopened last October. Michele Linder-Coats discussed activities in Philadelphia during the pandemic to conduct outreach for the Head Start program and other pre-school programs to get families enrolled or to stay enrolled. James Lane discussed efforts in Virginia and support the schools offered during the pandemic.
Ms. Erb-Downward focused her testimony on past research and some of the ongoing challenges for this population of homeless children and children in foster care. Past data indicates that if a child is homeless, they are 14 times more likely to end up in foster care. Later in the question period she emphasized that we needed to be clear that homelessness and poverty are not reasons for such placements. Roughly 1 in 16 – or 1.4 million – children under the age of 6 years were estimated to be homeless in 2017-18. Only 9% of these children, were enrolled in Head Start, Early Head Start, or programs funded with McKinney-Vento sub-grants.
Erb-Downward also discussed the challenges of the federal homeless definitions. Under the McKinney-Vento program the definition of homeless is different and broader than definition under Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Those definitions allow access to shelter and housing programs. Families temporarily living with relatives are not considered homeless and cannot qualify for some HUD housing services. She did say that the recent influx of more flexible McKinney-Vento Homeless Students funding allows some of these gaps to be addressed. A family could be placed in temporary accommodations such as a hotel which in turn would fit the definition of “homeless families” and to qualifying for some of these same HUD assistance programs. She also discussed the problem of school transfers and how transfer for homeless or children in foster care can delay education by six months. The impact can be long term based on her research in Michigan and New York, not only did 1 in 4 students who had experienced homelessness at any point during middle or high school drop out of school, these students accounted for 20% of all students who dropped out of high school in the state.
She also talked about the importance of identifying these students so that rights and services are provided. She noted that, based on a fall 2020 survey, the most striking finding was that at the same point in time that liaisons were reporting greater need in their communities the number of homeless students identified decreased by 28% in comparison to the prior year. This equates to 420,000 fewer homeless students being identified by theirs schools and likely missing services.
CWLA addressed education concerns in our recent testimony to the House Subcommittee on Worker and Family Support (see “What CWLA Said About Education and Foster Care” article)