Destiny Hodges was a 17-year-old mother when she first became homeless. She was also still in high school.
After graduating, she worked a series of jobs to try and make ends meet. Finally, she sought shelter at Covenant House New Orleans when she realized she had to escape her child’s abusive father and she could no longer live “pillar to post” with the support of friends because of the dangers of coronavirus exposure.
“Me being in a shelter really made me kind of sad,” Hodges, now 21, told the national nonprofit SchoolHouse Connection, which aims to help homeless youth. “But, I had to raise a daughter and I was six months pregnant, so I had to just swallow all of that and also then get help with COVID.”
Advocates and officials with NOLA Public Schools say there are likely thousands of youth in the city who are like Hodges was, homeless students who have become more vulnerable since the pandemic has further strained fiscal resources, made couch-surfing more dangerous and made it difficult to connect with people who can help.
They’re asking Congress for $2.8 billion in emergency COVID-19 funding to help homeless youth age 22 and under attending local schools, living in shelters and crashing with friends or distant family.
Ayesha Butler, the homeless liaison for NOLA Public Schools, participated in a briefing Wednesday with U.S. Reps. Jimmy Panetta, D-California, and Don Bacon, R-Nebraska, to explain how funding could be used to help New Orleans youth.
Dedicated — but flexible — funding is needed to allow schools and shelters to work together to find students temporary housing, as well as provide mental health services, academic intervention for students falling behind and more food to families, Butler and others say.
In the briefing, she said school closures and hybrid models of in-person and virtual learning had made difficult situations even trickier.
“We have to make sure they’re identified to get services,” Butler said of homeless students. “And school is the only stable place some of our kids have.”
Although COVID-19 presents unforeseen challenges, New Orleans had struggled with homelessness among public school kids even before the pandemic.
In February, the latest for which data is available, public schools in New Orleans reported 2,079 homeless students. That’s roughly 4.5% of the district’s 46,602 students that year, according to the Louisiana Department of Education, and more that double the 941 reported in neighboring Jefferson Parish.
In January, the U.S. Department of Education reported the highest number of homeless youth ever recorded.
Using 2017-18 school year data compiled by the National Center for Homeless Education, the department said public schools identified 1.5 million youth without housing, marking an 11% increase over the previous school year.
Barbara Duffield, the executive director of SchoolHouse connection, said that because many homeless youth aren’t in school, the actual numbers were likely higher.
The federal data shows homelessness severely impacts a student’s future prospects. On-time graduation rates for homeless students averaged about 65% across the country. And fewer than 30% of homeless students achieved academic proficiency in reading, math or science, research shows.
But it’s not just money advocates seek. They’re also asking Congress to change federal law that defines what it means to homeless in the first place, among other measures.
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, first signed in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan, requires schools to protect homeless students by removing certain enrollment barriers, like lack of transportation or proof of residency, and appoint liaisons to help those students stay in school. It offers a broad definition of homelessness for schools to include children “doubling up” with other families and living in hotels or with friends.
But the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development has a more narrow definition, which reserves the designation for those staying in shelters or on the street.
“This doesn’t capture this particularly mobile, vulnerable, and hidden population, so millions of youth are locked out of vital channels of federal relief,” Duffield said.
Duffield and others are asking Congress to pass the Emergency Family Stabilization Act, a $2 billion proposal introduced in both the House and Senate that would funnel more flexible funding to rentals, emergency child care, utilities and more.
Advocates like Duffield have also underscored that the $2.2 trillion CARES Act passed in March didn’t dedicate education funds specifically to homeless youth. They are asking that any subsequent stimulus bill include $500 million so liaisons at schools can better understand who is experiencing homelessness.
The group is also asking for $300 million to put toward the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act Program, which helps with housing and outreach.
Jim Kelly, the executive director of Covenant House, one of the few shelters in Louisiana for families, said he would continue to take referrals from NOLA Public Schools. His shelter provides meals, shelter and support systems, including help and resources so students can attend virtual school.
Describing the kids in the shelter’s care as “brave” and “resilient,” Kelly said last November Covenant House had 162 people age 22 and younger in its care. Now, it averages about 220 people a day, and he expects that number to continue to climb through Christmas.
“There’s no reason why the numbers would come down,” Kelly said. “They’re gonna go up, sadly. But that’s our mission — not to run away from it, but towards it.”