How Does the Way We Define Homelessness Affect Students?

Who Counts? Educational Disadvantage among Children Identified as Homeless and Implications for the Systems That Serve Them
Warren Lowell and Maria Hanratty
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Federal agencies and programs don’t use a universal definition for identifying people experiencing homelessness; in particular, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Education (ED) define homelessness differently. The biggest difference between HUD’s and ED’s definition of homelessness is that ED also defines people as experiencing homelessness if they’re living in hotels or motels or if they’re living with friends or family temporarily because of the loss of previous housing or other economic circumstances, a situation commonly known as “doubling up.”

These differing definitions can have material effects on everything from the number of identified people experiencing homelessness to determining eligibility and service provision of various supportive services offered by HUD and ED. This report investigates how the educational outcomes of students identified as homeless by HUD compare with those who are identified as homeless by ED.

To examine differences between these groups, the authors linked demographic data, standardized test scores, and Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) data for students between the 2013–14 and 2016–17 school years in three Minnesota Continuums of Care. Students who fit either definition of experiencing homelessness were assigned to groups using two different methods of grouping.

The first grouping method put students into either a group for students identified as homeless in the HMIS data that fit under HUD’s more narrow definition of homelessness (HUD-identified) or a second group that included students who were identified as homeless in their schools but did not appear in HMIS data (only-ED-identified). The second grouping method sorted students experiencing homelessness into the three mutually exclusive groups of only-ED-identified, only-HUD-identified, and ED- and HUD-identified students.

Measures such as school mobility, chronic absenteeism, and academic achievement were then analyzed using two different models. The first was a linear mixed-effects model that controlled for demographic characteristics and the second was a more stringent fixed-effect model that controlled for all unmeasured student characteristics that are constant over time, allowing for a better understanding of how outcomes differed for any particular student in the years that student did and did not experience homelessness.

Those educational outcomes were analyzed using both effect models across the two grouping methods of students experiencing homelessness and a comparison group of students from families with low incomes who were stably housed.

Key findings
  • Thirty-four percent of students who were HUD-identified as experiencing homelessness were not also identified by their schools as experiencing homelessness, even though they would have been eligible for additional services under the McKinney-Vento Act.
  • In comparison with stably housed students from families with low incomes, students identified as experiencing homelessness under either ED’s or HUD’s definitions faced increased risks of chronic absenteeism and were more likely to move schools within the school year.
  • Both ED-identified and HUD-identified students experiencing homelessness saw lower rates of both math and reading proficiency compared with stably housed students from families with low incomes. However, in models that adjusted for unmeasured, fixed student characteristics, coefficients related to math and reading proficiency no longer remained statistically significant.
  • ED-identified students experiencing homelessness had similar, if not larger, risks for chronic absenteeism and school mobility than HUD-identified students, suggesting that doubled-up students face similar disadvantages as those faced by students living in shelters or unsheltered locations.
  • Chronic absenteeism and school mobility rates were the highest for students who were identified as homeless by both HUD and ED in the same school year.
  • Black and Native American students faced higher rates of HUD-defined homelessness and ED-defined homelessness in comparison with their white or Asian peers.
Policy implications
  • Improved collaboration between HUD and ED systems could ensure a larger proportion of students eligible for McKinney-Vento services receive them.
  • The distinctions between HUD’s and ED’s definition of homelessness may be less important than previously thought, and students under either definition appear to face similar challenges. Restricting resources and services to only those families who fit under HUD’s narrower definition may not be the most efficient allocation of resources.
  • Further research is needed to fully understand the housing needs of families and students in doubled-up situations, but increased resources and assistance for all students experiencing any type of homelessness is needed to improve educational and housing outcomes.