The Kentucky Department of Education reported serving 31,869 homeless students during the 2013-2014 school year. But data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development showed only 5,245 homeless people — children and adults — in Kentucky in 2013.
Homeless advocates say state and federal education officials have the more accurate count of kids experiencing homelessness, but HUD's numbers are used to determine federal funding for various programs serving the homeless. That means there is little money to help homeless children and their families, leaving financially strapped school systems to pick up the slack.
"Clearly the federal government has abandoned its commitment to fill yawning gaps in affordable housing options for low-income families and left America's public schools to deal with the consequences," said Ruth White, executive director of the National Center for Housing and Welfare. "These alarming trends could easily be reversed by prudent investment in federal housing programs that help these struggling families make ends meet."
At issue is how the two agencies define homelessness.
Both of them count kids living in shelters, transitional housing, on the street, in hotels or in cars, but education officials also count kids who are living "doubled up" with family members or friends because of a financial hardship.
The federal housing agency has also focused its resources on chronically homeless people — particularly military veterans — who cost the entire social service system the most money through repeated hospital and jail stays.
Charlie Lanter, the director of Lexington's office of homelessness prevention and intervention, said HUD has recently indicated that it will soon focus on children and families after reaching its goal of having all military veterans housed. "With veterans, they have put a lot of resources behind it. We think that we will house all of Lexington's homeless veterans by sometime this summer," Lanter said. "If they put the same level of resources behind the issue of family and children homelessness, we know that it can be done."
Currently, if a family who is living with a friend or a family member calls seeking help — such as finding subsidized housing — that family isn't eligible for help because it doesn't meet HUD's definition of homelessness.
"Under HUD definitions, you are not homeless and you are not eligible for a lot of services," Lanter said. "It's very frustrating."
A network of child and homeless advocates is pushing federal legislation that would require HUD to adopt the U.S. Department of Education's definition of homelessness.
However, the Homeless Children and Youth Act has gained little traction in Congress. Similar bills filed in 2014 and 2013 didn't make it out of committee in the House or the Senate.
"That one piece of legislation could do a lot to stabilize students and help the schools districts that serve them," said Barbara Duffield of the National Association of the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. "The school system is the universal safety net. But they can't do this alone."
Kentucky education officials say they served 31,869 homeless students in 2013-14, but federal housing officials recorded only 5,245 homeless people in the state in 2013. The difference is a matter of defining homelessness, and it has a big impact on public schools.