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School Used To Be A Haven For Students Facing Homelessness. Now It’s An Extra Challenge.

Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT

From Texas Standard:

For many students, starting a new school year completely online is an adjustment. For students experiencing homelessness, that adjustment will likely be even greater. And now, some homeless advocates worry that more students will experience homelessness and challengeswith their education because of economic hardship resulting from the pandemic.

Brett Merfish is director of youth justice at Texas Appleseed, a social and economic justice nonprofit in Austin. She told Texas Standard that it’s difficult to get exact numbers on youth homelessness, but said that those working with homeless youth have told her they “have all seen a jump in their numbers.”

Schools provide an important safety net for many students, including those who rely on it for meals. One upside, Merfish said, is that many schools are still providing those meals even while they’re closed for in-person instruction.

But homeless students or those whose families are struggling with finances also often lack reliable internet access – one gap schools can’t cover while they’re closed for in-person instruction.

“One of the areas that is more challenging is in connectivity - internet access - especially for our students who don’t have a device, or maybe their family only owns one device, and they have multiple kids in school,” Merfish said.

Since schools closed during the start of the pandemic last spring, some districts with higher numbers of homeless students have started to track just how many and how often students aren’t able to log in to class remotely.

“In some districts, you had as much as 6.5% of students overall, where you had no or lost contacts with them from March when things went online,” Merfish said.

There are provisions in the federal CARES Act to help students with access to technology, and Merfish said some local initiatives also aim to help keep homeless and economically disadvantaged students in school – money going toward internet hot spots, mobile buses and other devices. But she said they’re not long-term solutions.

“It’s definitely not a permanent fix,” she said.

Web story by Sarah Gabrielli.

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Laura first joined the KUT team in April 2012. She now works for the statewide program Texas Standard as a reporter and producer. Laura came to KUT from the world of television news. She has worn many different hats as an anchor, reporter and producer at TV stations in Austin, Amarillo and Toledo, OH. Laura is a proud graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, a triathlete and enjoys travel, film and a good beer. She enjoys spending time with her husband and pets.
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