Originally published in MLive
Like many homeless families, Blake McClellan’s spent time living with a relative, then at a motel, while hoping space would free up in a family shelter.
Like other homeless students, he struggled with his school work under the stress and had a stretch of failing grades.
But Blake beat the odds. With the support of an AP teacher, he got back on track his senior year at a small online charter and achieved his goal of being valedictorian.
During his graduation speech, he shared his family’s ordeal with homelessness after his dad lost his job and their family of five was evicted from their Owosso home. His speech, inside The Suburban Center in Novi in the spring of 2018, was the first time he openly spoke of being homeless with his classmates.
“It was too much – school was too much, living in a shelter was too much, worrying about the day to day was just too much,” McClellan, now 19 and in the midst of a gap year before attending college, said during his speech.
School leaders say more resources are needed to support homeless students in Michigan and broader community initiatives to spur affordable housing options.
The statistics show homeless students are likely to struggle with their academics. In Michigan, just over half of homeless students end up graduating and just less than half of homeless students are chronically absent.
McClellan, who is headed to Oral Roberts University in August, said he recommends homeless students find something to motivate them.
“Find something outside the bubble that you can look forward to because when you’re first homeless, you’re only looking at that and feeling defeated,” he said.
Most homeless students don’t become valedictorian.
In fact, the dropout rate for homeless students is 20.5 percent and the graduation rate, 56.9 percent. That’s nearly 24 percentage points lower than the average graduation rate for all students and below the national average of 64 percent.
The most recent homeless student data for 2017-18 released by Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information highlight the academic struggles of students experiencing homelessness.
“This is an issue impacting our education system and workforce and if we are going to thrive as a state, we have to figure it out,” said Jennifer Erb-Downward, a senior research associate with the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions initiative who has studied this issue.
“We need to get to a place where people fully understand the extent of homelessness and housing instability in Michigan and how it has an impact on a child’s education and well-being.”
The number of Michigan students experiencing homelessness in 2017-18 was 35,193, down 1,618 students from 2016-17, according to state data. While the number of homeless students in Michigan is down for the third consecutive year, the numbers have grown in some school districts – urban, suburban and rural.
Erb-Downward said the data shows that students experiencing homelessness in Michigan are at a much higher risk for not graduating than any other group available for comparison.
The homeless have the lowest four-year graduation rate and highest high school dropout rate of any subgroup typically tracked in the state, including the economically disadvantaged and English learners.
Forty-eight percent of homeless students were chronically absent the 2017-18 school year. Students classified as chronically absent have missed at least 10 percent school or 18 days.
But educators and Erb-Downward say it shouldn’t be surprising homeless students struggle academically because they miss so much school.
Approximately 52 percent of homeless third-graders were not proficient in English language arts, based on the most recent standardized test data released. Under state law, the 2019-20 school year will be the first year third-graders can be held back if they are more than a grade level behind in reading.
Lack of affordable housing
School homeless liaisons say the lack of affordable housing is the leading cause of homelessness for their families.
As rents rise and income growth remains flat, most are living in doubled-up households with multiple friends or relatives because it is more affordable. Liaisons said it can be upwards of a dozen people crammed into a small apartment or home.
Most of Michigan’s homeless students – 27,038 – were doubled up with their families. Only 5,150 students were in shelters last school year.
Still, thousands of others went to school not knowing where they would sleep at night – motel, car, park, campground or abandoned building. Advocates say shelters are usually full and have long waiting lists.
The McKinney-Vento Act defines homeless children and youth as those “who lack a fixed, regular, or adequate nighttime residence.” The 1987 federal law requires school liaisons help ensure students are identified and support for families is coordinated with other entities and agencies.
Liaisons say while schools have gotten better at identifying homeless students and families, their inability to find affordable housing and earn a living wage remain an ongoing challenge.
“We can put up housing everywhere and call it affordable but is it really affordable to our families?” said Edna Stewart, student services supervisor/homeless liaison for Grand Rapids Public Schools, which had a homeless population of 670 students last year.
In most cases, she said the school district’s families are working minimum wage jobs and can only afford monthly rent in the $400 to $600 range, while rents in the area are starting at $800 or higher.
“Our families are not earning a livable wage to pay that kind of rent and keep their household running with utilities, groceries and everything else that is needed,” she said.
Holland Superintendent Brian Davis said communities need to address and better understand the challenge of affordable housing and what is impacting it in our state and its different regions.
“What are the contributing factors that we do have some control over?” asked Davis, whose district had 266 homeless students last school year.
More resources for schools
The superintendent for Ypsilanti schools points out that school remains the only constant for students experiencing homelessness and high levels of stress and anxiety.
Yet, Alena Zachery-Ross said school leaders throughout Michigan don’t have adequate resources to provide all the support homeless students need to be successful. Ypsilanti had one of the largest homeless populations in Michigan for the 2017-18 school year with 509 students, an increase from 410 the previous year.
Ypsilanti trailed only Kalamazoo, Lansing, Detroit and Grand Rapids based on the most recent homeless student statistics available.
“It is just heartbreaking when you get a call and a family doesn’t have any place to go,” Zachery-Ross said. “You see the impact in the classroom. Homelessness is causing all kinds of trauma to students and their whole family.”
Davis agrees more money is needed. He said the funding does not exist for districts to support liaisons the way they need to better support families in a housing crisis.
Some of things districts typically spend their allocation on are student supplies and services, hygiene items, stopgap transportation or bus passes, gas cards, taxis, school uniforms and winter items (coats, hats, gloves and boots), field trips, clothing, shoes and undergarments.
For its homeless students, Michigan receives federal funding through the Homeless Education Program. Districts also utilize federal Title I money and some regional fundraising drives. Michigan received $2.5 million, an increase of about $400,000 over the previous year, for 2018-19.
Erb-Downward, the U-M senior research associate, said the first step in grappling with the homeless issue is for state officials and lawmakers to have a far better grasp of homelessness and housing instability. She said they need to scrutinize the education data more.
The number of Michigan homeless students reached an all-time high of 40,861 in 2014-15 but has dropped by nearly 6,000 in recent years.
However, researchers and those in the trenches are skeptical of that decline. They claim there is an undercounting of students, in part, because families are afraid to identify themselves or too proud to seek help.
Fear of being identified
The fear of possibly having their children taken away is a difficult hurdle for some homeless parents, school officials and a parent said.
Parents who do not have a safe place for their children to sleep worry they will be reported to Child Protective Services (CPS) and be at risk of losing their children.
Tomica McClellan, Blake’s mother, said she spent her days looking for help after the eviction worrying about her family’s uncertain future. She said she experienced first-hand why families don’t come forward when she sought help through the state and those officials called CPS.
“We were already in a fearful situation trying take care of our children,” she said.
“They threaten to take your kids away when you are wanting help and that makes people not want to seek help or tell people they are homeless. If you are asking for help, you shouldn’t be penalized for it.”
In the McClellans’ case, it wasn’t a negative outcome. She said CPS put them up in a motel for a couple weeks prior to them entering a Monroe shelter, close to the job her husband found.
“We got blessed with that family shelter,” said Tomica McClellan, who said a few months later they found a home through a church member.
To learn more about Michigan Virtual Charter Academy, visit https://mvca.k12.com/