Learning from data on homeless students

“Homelessness up again in King County” – the recurring headline, steady as a drumbeat, reminds us of the paradox of our region’s economic prosperity:  A flourishing job market increases competition for housing and squeezes out lower- and middle-income households.  Data informing most policy decisions about regional homelessness come almost exclusively from two sources – COUNT US IN (also known as the Point-in-Time or One-Night Count), and the Seattle/King County Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), a secure online database of information about services provided to people experiencing homelessness.

A third dataset –  HOMELESS STUDENTS DATA (an annual report prepared by the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction) – offers a wealth of information about family homelessness, but so far has not been used to guide policy for prevention or mitigation of homelessness.

Although COUNT US IN and HOMELESS STUDENT DATA are updated annually, overlap in the individuals they count is limited by differences in method and definition:

Method

  • Each January, COUNT US IN sends out teams of volunteers to provide a one-time “snapshot” of the number of people of all ages who are experiencing homelessness. This includes counts of sheltered and unsheltered individuals plus an in-person survey of a subset of these individuals. The method is inherently conservative, and its report acknowledges undercounting homeless individuals in suburban and rural communities and those in hard-to-reach subpopulations such as unsheltered families and unaccompanied youth.
  • HOMELESS STUDENTS DATA are collected throughout the school year by teachers and other school personnel and provide a count of students (preschool through grade 12) who were known to be homeless at any time during the academic year.

Definition

  • While both data sources count as homeless people living unsheltered or sheltered (in emergency shelters, transitional housing, or safe havens), COUNT US IN, following criteria specified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), excludes homeless individuals and families who are “doubled up” with friends, family, or others in homes, hotels/motels, or other arrangements.
  • In contrast, following specifications from the U.S. Department of Education and the Washington State Legislature, HOMELESS STUDENTS DATA includes “doubling up” in their definition of homelessness: about 2/3 of students without a stable home in the most recent (2016-17) count were doubled up.

Differences aside, both counts lead to the same sorry conclusion:  As the fortunes of some King County residents are tracking the region’s recovery from The Great Recession, increasing numbers of our neighbors are becoming homeless.  According to COUNT US IN 2018, 12,112 individuals were homelessness in Seattle/King County on January 26th, up by 4% from 2017 (due to changes in methodology in 2017, comparisons with pre-2017 counts are discouraged).  Similarly, HOMELESS STUDENTS DATA reported that 8,938 King County public school students experienced homelessness during the 2016-17 school year, up by 8% from the previous year and more than double the number in 2010-11. The numbers of unsheltered individuals have also gone up in the most recent counts, by 15% for COUNT US IN – from 5,485 (2017) to 6,320 (2018) – and by 39% for HOMELESS STUDENTS DATA – from 244 (2015-16 SY) to 339 (2016-17SY).

What can we learn by looking at these datasets together?  Striking similarities emerge when we look at subgroups in these datasets. (Complementing the data from HOMELESS STUDENTS DATA, the Seattle Atlas of Student Homelessness, an in-depth analysis of data from Seattle Public Schools by the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness (ICPH) offers examples of how housing instability compounds existing disparities for outcomes such as academic achievement and school suspensions.)

  • RACIAL DISPARITIES: Blacks/African Americans and Hispanics/Latinos are disproportionately represented in both homelessness counts.
  • DISABILITIES: More than half of the COUNT US IN survey respondents said they were living with at least one disabling condition, and 21% of homeless students were in Special Education (about double the rate for students who were not homeless).
  • LIMITED ENGLISH PROFICIENCY: The COUNT US IN survey found that respondents from families with children were 6 times more likely than those without children to encounter language barriers when trying to access services. HOMELESS STUDENTS DATA reported that 22% of homeless students were “English Language Learners” (compared to 11% of students overall).
  • PRIOR HOMELESSNESS: COUNT US IN 2018 reported a 1-year increase of 779 individuals (28%) experiencing chronic homelessness; more than 1 in 5 respondents to the COUNT US IN survey first experienced homelessness when they were children, and almost half had experienced homelessness before age 25. While HOMELESS STUDENTS DATA does not report on chronic homelessness, the Seattle Atlas of Student Homelessness, found that more than half of Seattle Public School students who were homeless in the 2015-16 school year had also been homeless in previous years.
  • DOUBLING UP: More than 1 in 4 respondents to the COUNT US IN survey reported that immediately before becoming homeless they were “doubled up” (living in a home owned or rented by relatives or friends). This suggests that by counting students who are doubled up, HOMELESS STUDENTS DATA identifies students at risk of ending up on the street, in a shelter, or in transitional housing. Because repeated episodes of homelessness are common (see PRIOR HOMELESSNESS above), paying attention to the doubled-up population could eventually help reduce chronic homelessness. Currently, as noted by the ICPH report on Seattle student homelessness, “doubled-up students are not eligible for many of the same housing resources as other homeless students.”

Finally, while COUNT US IN provides homeless counts for 6 broad regions of King County, HOMELESS STUDENTS DATA offers almost a decade of data for 18 school districts across the region, revealing different patterns over time in different communities.  While the rate of homelessness has leveled off in some school districts, it continues to climb steadily in others.  In Tukwila, for example, student homelessness surged from 47 students (1.6% of enrollment) in 2007-08 to 375 (12.7%) in 2016-17 – an 8-fold increase in less than 10 years.  In the same period, the number of Seattle public school students without a stable home grew from 930 (2.0% of enrollment) to 4,280 (7.9%), while a few districts (Mercer Island, Vashon Island, and Skykomish) never had a year in which more than 20 students experienced homelessness.

REDUCING THE FLOW TO CHRONIC HOMELESSNESS?

Broadening our homelessness policy perspective to include individuals and families who are doubled up could help us identify families at risk for homelessness before they have exhausted their last personal resource (the family and friends willing to take them in).  Chicago is already looking at doubled-up families by, for the first time, linking information from their official database of homeless individuals accessing services (HMIS) with data from the public schools.  By combining data sources, they are able to better understand families’ paths to homelessness and to project future needs for services.  Following a similar course in King County could enable us to come up with a more prevention-oriented approach to what has become a chronic problem in our communities.

NOTE: Communities Count has reported on student homelessness for several years, and is about to update that indicator with 2016-17 data. To coordinate with the newly released COUNT US IN report, this blog previews key findings from that update.

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