In 2016, the state of Michigan was ranked sixth in the United States for its number of homeless students. Jennifer Erb-Downward, a senior research associate with University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions initiative, analyzed data surrounding schoolchildren who are considered homeless. Under federal education law homelessness is defined as all children and youth who “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”
“Michigan had the sixth largest number of homeless students in the United States,” Erb-Downward said. “That’s over 36,000 students in the 2015-2016 school year. That’s a very large number of children who are going to school while experiencing the instability of not knowing where they’re going to sleep at night, not knowing whether or not they’re going to be able to stay in school or have to transfer.”
Rackham student Michael Evangelist, co-lead author on the student homelessness report, said a lack of affordable housing was one of the main contributors to the homelessness issue.
“There’s a huge shortage of affordable housing in the country,” Evangelist said. “There’s about 5 million households that benefit from housing vouchers, but that number and the funding for it has been pretty constant since 1995, and during that time housing has become much less affordable. So right now there’s a 32-month wait for housing vouchers. If you qualify for this program, you’ll have to wait over two years to get housed.”
Evangelist said he had done some calculations and found about 8 million more affordable housing units would be needed in order to meet demand.
Erb-Downward found homelessness is an issue that affects the state of Michigan as a whole, a fact she does not think most people know.
“Our first goal is really to raise awareness that homelessness is not just an urban issue, it’s not just a rural issue, or a suburban issue,” Erb-Downward said. “It affects children in school systems everywhere, and this has an education impact.”
Dawn Espy, Education Program Manager at Ozone House, an agency that provides support, intervention, training and assistance to homeless and high-risk youth shares Erb-Downward’s concerns. As Education Program Manager, Espy works with the Washtenaw Intermediate School District to support the education needs of any youth in the county experiencing homelessness. Espy said though most people might not know this, the “largest number of homeless students in the county are in Ann Arbor.”
“I think it’s really important to look at things in a larger picture and be able to see the scope of the need,” Espy said. “We basically identified that there’s usually between 1,100 and 1,300 students in our county experiencing homelessness each year. That’s across the county, so I think a lot of the time folks might think about how it happens in Ypsilanti, or in other places, but really it’s in Ann Arbor. Our largest number of homeless students in the county are in Ann Arbor.”
Espy, who received a psychology master’s degree at the University, said she thought Erb-Downward’s research was valuable, especially in its ability to get the attention of multiple facets of the community, facilitating collaboration toward solving the problem.
“Youth who are experiencing homelessness really aren’t often represented in conversations,” Espy said. “So it’s really valuable for me to provide a voice for them to amplify their needs and express what’s going on, because I think often we don’t hear those narratives.”
The report found homeless students were doing worse in school than all other demographics. Erb-Downward said people often don’t realize the extent of the poverty that exists in our country.
“I think in many ways, our indicators of poverty typically don’t show the full extent of what is really happening to these families,” Erb-Downward said. “If you look at the numbers around education data, you’ll see that not only is there a gap between homeless students and all students, but homeless students are doing significantly worse than their economically disadvantaged or low-income peers. We need to think about not only what’s happening in the classroom, but what is happening to students before they get into the classroom and how these other factors affect the child’s ability to learn. I think the homelessness and housing data that exists in the school records provides a way to start thinking about the true extent of poverty and instability that’s being experienced across the United States by family and children.”