A lesson in poverty: Schoolchildren in Michigan struggle with homelessness at high rates

Michigan is among states with the largest populations of homeless youths; a new U-M analysis shows homeless students have low graduation rate, high dropout rate.

April 5, 2018

ANN ARBOR—Children need stability to thrive, studies show, but for the more than 36,000 children in Michigan’s elementary, middle and high schools who face homelessness and housing insecurity, stability is often elusive.

According to a University of Michigan analysis, new data released by Michigan’s Department of Education shows dramatic disparities in educational outcomes for students experiencing homelessness. Under federal education law, all children who “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” are homeless.

“These numbers tell us that students experiencing homelessness in Michigan are at a much greater risk for not finishing high school than their peers,” said Jennifer Erb-Downward, senior research associate with U-M’s Poverty Solutions initiative.

Among her findings:

  • Students experiencing homelessness have the lowest four-year graduation rate and highest high school dropout rate of any group examined in Michigan.
  • Dropout rates for Michigan’s homeless students are increasing despite downward trends among other groups.
  • Homeless high school students are a particularly vulnerable group.

The state is required to release the data by the Every Student Succeeds Act, which includes dropout and graduation rates for school years 2012 through 2017.

To complement the data, U-M also released a student homelessness map to illustrate how many children in the state’s school districts experience homelessness and housing instability.

Poverty Solutions—a U-M initiative dedicated to the prevention and alleviation of poverty—developed the map to help policymakers and local stakeholders think about the impact of homelessness in their area and to identify resources to support some of the state’s most vulnerable children.

The map focuses on the percentage and number of students experiencing homelessness in each school district and the percentage of low-income students experiencing homelessness, where data is available. Key findings include:

  • In the school year 2015-16, Michigan ranked sixth among states for the most homeless students (following California, New York, Texas, Florida and Illinois). By comparison, Michigan ranked 10th for overall student enrollment.
  • Homelessness is a statewide issue impacting children in rural, suburban and urban areas.
  • While the total number of students reported as homeless is higher in Michigan’s more urban areas, some of the highest rates of homelessness among students were found in the state’s smallest school districts.
  • Data suggest that a significant undercount of homeless students is occurring in Detroit.

“These data show a much deeper level of poverty than has previously been recognized in Michigan and it is impacting rural, suburban and urban areas alike,” Erb-Downward said. “Families across our state do not have a stable place to call home. We need to understand why and what can be done in local communities to turn this trend around. No child should ever have to be homeless.”

The analysis of Michigan’s homeless student graduation and dropout rates are proving to be important tools for advocates and policymakers on the state and federal levels.

“This analysis highlights the urgent need to better identify and support homeless students, while the interactive map gives communities and policymakers an important new way to do so,” said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a Washington-DC based advocacy organization that is co-leading a national campaign to improve educational outcomes for homeless students. “Without an education, children are much more likely to experience poverty and homelessness as adults. In fact, lack of a high school degree is the number one risk factor factor for young adult homelessness.”

More information on student homelessness and its impact on child well-being will also be included in the 2018 Kids Count in Michigan Data Book, led by the Michigan League for Public Policy, which will be released on April 17.


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