CHARLESTON — The number of students in West Virginia classified as homeless dipped slightly last school year from the previous year, but the pandemic could drive an increase next time.
The total last school year was 10,417 compared to 10,522 homeless students in 2018-19. Last school year’s total accounts for more than 4% of total public school enrollment in West Virginia, meaning roughly one in every 24 students is without a home.
Any student living in a shelter, car, campground, hotel or motel or someone else’s home is considered homeless under the federal McKinney-Vento Act.
Nearly nine in 10 homeless students last school year “doubled up,” meaning they were living in another household because of economic hardship or domestic abuse. About 7% of these students lived in a shelter, 2.5% were unsheltered and slightly more than 2% lived in hotels or motels, according to the state Department of Education.
Jefferson County led the state with 1,206 homeless students compared to 1,411 in 2018-19. Kanawha County was next with 622 homeless students, 30 fewer than in the year before.
The ranks of homeless students swelled in 22 of the state’s 55 counties. The number increased by more than 100 each in Logan, Lincoln, Randolph, Harrison and Lewis counties.
More than 10% of Lewis County’s enrollment was homeless after the total soared from 36 in 2018-19 to 252 last school year. The latter total was more than the number of students enrolled in any single grade in the county last school year. In Randolph, the number was also 36 in 2018-19 and jumped to 163 last school year.
Statewide, the number of homeless students increased 16% from 2015 to last year. The numbers could be artificially low. Some parents, who provide the information to schools, might conceal their situations out of embarrassment or fear of judgment.
The increase in the past five years lines up somewhat with increases in poverty potentially tied to the opioid epidemic, but identifying a precise cause can be difficult.
Under the McKinney-Vento Act, the state Department of Education qualifies for annual grants to help care for homeless students. The minimum grant amount is $150,000. States receiving more than that are required to provide at least three-fourths of the money to local education agencies such as county school boards. Nine counties received a combined $359,000 in 2019-20.
This school year, 11 counties received a combined $506,000 in grants, which will go toward everything from clothes and food stipends to tutors and school therapists, according to the state school board. But there were more grant applications than funds available.
A 2016 federal Department of Education review of West Virginia’s handling of its program found the state had not utilized its data to improve circumstances for homeless students or their families. Namely, the projects receiving funding through the program did not set goals or explain their intent. The review also found there was no panel or uniform formula to review applications from local school boards applying for grants.
In a response to the review, state officials said plans were in the works to change these practices, though it’s unclear in years since what specifically is different.
Last week, West Virginia KIDS COUNT released an issue brief detailing youth homelessness in the state and urging localities to implement or enforce policies ensuring the McKinney-Vento Act is being followed closely so it can benefit as many students as possible.
The organization calls for local school boards to host ongoing awareness and educational campaigns on homelessness for school staff as well as students to ensure those who ask for help can receive it with empathy. Schools are urged to implement such services as allowing access to showers and laundry, providing safe storage places, linking people to outside agencies when necessary, ensuring access to free and reduced lunches and allowing for more flexible assignment deadlines and class schedules to accommodate other responsibilities, like work or taking care of relatives.
In June, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., joined Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in co-sponsoring legislation that would provide more flexible funding for community-based organizations that support children and families experiencing homelessness. Introduced June 9, the bill stalled in the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
Homeless rates are expected to increase because the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed many families out of homes and below poverty lines.
Since 2019, when reports of homeless students gained statewide traction, Manchin has vowed to work on solutions. Manchin and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., both members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, announced $9.1 million for 21 organizations to strengthen their support efforts for homeless people.
“Many of our fellow West Virginians are currently experiencing homelessness including children and families, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only made this horrible issue worse,” Manchin said. “We must continue to work together to address homelessness and ensure all West Virginians have a roof over their head each night.”