Report: Federal Law May Discourage Finding Homeless Children

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School districts around the country may be deliberately underreporting homeless children in an effort to save money, according to a government report.

The Government Accountability Office surveyed administrators in twenty different school districts around the country to assess the effectiveness of the Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) program, a component of McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

EHCY grants homeless students certain rights with the goal of preventing them from falling behind in education. For example, school districts are required to provide the homeless with a means of transportation to and from school, and they are required to offer a certain degree of academic support such such students as well.

The federal government offers a degree of funding to help with such requirements, but the funds are doled out by states to individual districts based on assessed need. As a result, districts without funding could find themselves on the hook for thousands in additional expenses for every additional homeless student that is identified.

That financial nudge, the GAO said, is likely causing student homelessness to go underreported.

“[S]chool districts face financial disincentives to identifying homeless children and youth due to the cost of services districts must provide,” the report says.

In order to offset this, the GAO suggests that the federal government create a more rigorous regulatory regime to ensure that the homeless are sought out with sufficient vigor at the local level.

In addition to financial reasons, the GAO suggested many other causes for the alleged underreporting of homelessness, including a stigma that caused families to conceal it, fear of government oversight, and, interestingly, anti-gay bias. Several school districts, the GAO said, believed that school districts were underreporting the number of students “who may have separated from their families due to their LGBTQ identification.” More targeted outreach may be needed to help such individuals, the report said.

As of the 2011-12 school year, at least 1.1 million public school children were believed to have been homeless for a period, according to Department of Education data. According to the government’s definition, homeless children include not only those living in shelters or on the streets, but also any children forced to live in another person’s home (a situation called “doubling up”) due to an economic emergency.

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