The number of homeless students has hit a new high — and it might still be an underestimate

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If you ask someone to think of what homelessness looks like, they tend to picture adults and people sleeping in tents or on the streets. Homelessness can look a little different when it comes to youth, though. With a new report showing that the number of homeless students has more than doubled, it's past time to start having these conversations.

Last week, the National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE) released a report that found the number homeless students nationwide leapt up from 1.3 million in the 2015-2016 school year to 1.5 million in 2017-2018. The ages of students included those in pre-kindergarten (or, 3 years old) to those in 12th grade and older.

The NCHE has analyzed data on student homelessness since the 2004-2005 academic year. Since that first year, the population has more than doubled, and this year's report constitutes the highest number of homeless students ever recorded. The worst part? It's likely an underestimate.

Determining exactly how many homeless people are in the United States is pretty much impossible. Part of the problem is that there are varying definitions of homelessness even across government agencies.

Let's say one agency only considered students homeless if they're unsheltered (living on streets, in cars, etc.). The number of homeless students in unsheltered situations saw a 104% increase, NCHE reported. But focusing on that alone means you would miss that the majority of homeless students are "doubled-up."

Doubled-up means you're sharing housing because of a loss of housing, economic hardship, or something similar. This is something that the Department of Housing and Urban Development itself doesn't take into account; that's why the agency's 2019 point-in-time estimates only counted roughly 568,000 people experiences homelessness.

NCHE itself acknowledged that even with effective counting strategies, under-identification of homelessness remains an issue. For example, in 2019, an audit from California found that schools undercounted their homeless students by at least 37% in 2017-2018.

“As high as these numbers are, our identification efforts still need work before they accurately reflect how many children and youth — including young children under the age of 6 — experience homelessness,” Barbara Duffield, the executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, said in a statement.

To help students, advocates and agencies need to begin expanding their ideas of what homelessness can look like. Nobody's experience is going to be exactly the same, and placing overly restrictive definitions on homelessness can leave already vulnerable people unable to access needed resources or community assistance.

“Schools and communities need to know who is experiencing homelessness in order to help them succeed — and policymakers at all levels must prioritize action to support these invisible and often over-looked students," Duffield said.