For some Atlanta Public Schools students, school is the most reliable shelter and food source—and as rents increase, so do the number of homeless students, district officials told Atlanta Civic Circle last week.
More than 2,000—or over 4%—of almost 50,000 total APS students reported that they were homeless during the 2022-23 school year. Per federal guidelines, APS counts as homeless the students who are living on the streets or in shelters, residing with non-immediate family members or friends, or staying in hotels, motels, and short-term rentals.
“We expect our number to be higher than last year’s,” for the 2023-24 school year that began Aug. 1, APS spokesperson Seth Coleman told Atlanta Civic Circle in an email. “Traditionally, our numbers grow each year,” Coleman said, as rent increases far outpace wage growth. Single mothers with multiple children account for many of these cases, officials noted.
“Additionally, many of our families are fleeing domestic violence or have experienced a natural disaster [such as fires or floods where they lived], which resulted in their homelessness,” he said. Single mothers with multiple children account for many of these cases, he added.
It’s not unusual for school districts’ homeless populations to increase each year, said Christina Endres, a program specialist with the National Center for Homeless Education.
Public school districts began reporting enrollment data for students experiencing homelessness in the 2004-05 school year. Since then, Endres told Atlanta Civic Circle in an email, “[unhoused] student counts have only gone down four times.”
The rare downticks happened twice after major natural disasters, once when a large state had a data-collection glitch, and during the COVID-19 pandemic for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, she said. “Those were extraordinary situations, and the typical trend is for an annual increase.”
APS’s Homeless Education Program ensures access to a free public education for children experiencing homelessness by providing transportation to and from school, educational support, school supplies and community-based resources, in accordance with the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
The federal law also requires schools to keep tabs on the number of students experiencing homelessness and help them find emergency housing, healthy food, hygiene items, clothing, and medicine.
“It’s pretty comprehensive, but requires parents or youth to initiate services,” said Robbie Marsh, a special education professor at Mercer University. “So that is a significant barrier, as there isn’t really any other way schools would track or identify unhoused families or youth.”
What’s more. he said, these services are inadequate in the face of spiking housing costs and stagnant wages that affect APS families.
Through the APS Homeless Education program, students receive free breakfast and lunch at school. The program also allows social workers to request Publix and Kroger gift cards worth up to $100 once a week for families.
The program provides tech resources like loaner phones, computers, and WiFi hotspots, along with tutoring services, and financial assistance for extracurricular activities and after-school programming, said Coleman, the APS spokesperson.
“If additional needs come up during the school year, social workers connect families to other community-based organizations who support these food/nutritional needs,” Coleman said. Many schools have on-site food pantries and host food distribution events and farmers markets throughout the school year.
Thanks to American Rescue Plan funding, APS also offers limited emergency housing assistance by paying for students and their families to stay temporarily in motels.
“The parameters of the [ARP] grant only allow for short-term emergency housing assistance, which can range from three days to a few weeks,” Coleman said. “We encourage families to utilize other support networks and organizations that will allow them to transition to other housing once their short-term assistance through our program has ended, and our school social workers continue to work closely with these families to locate additional options.”
“This is where community support and partnerships are greatly needed,” he said.
APS also connects families to Atlanta Housing (AH), the city’s housing authority. AH has a waitlist for housing vouchers with over 24,000 people, but APS has a “special voucher program” with the housing authority, separate from the regular one, Coleman said.
But even that targeted program has a limited number of vouchers, “so at times we experience a waitlist internally as well,” he said. One reason for the backlog is that many landlords won’t accept Section 8 vouchers. “Unfortunately, an issue many of our families are facing is a decrease in property owners willing to accept AH housing vouchers, which reduces the housing inventory that is available.”