In Blog: Factually Speaking, Kids Count Blog Posts

A version of this column appeared in the Alpena News on October 16, 2019


Teachers don’t like empty desks.

Occasionally, an empty desk means a student is off doing something fun — a family vacation, a field trip, a sports tournament. In those cases, we feel happy for our students and try to remember that some things are more important than school. Of course, we’re also a little sad, because we made a cool lesson plan and want all the kids to be able to experience it.

But, most of the time, if a desk is empty, it’s not a good sign. A kiddo is home sick. A grandparent has passed away. A doctor’s appointment. And sometimes we don’t hear anything from a student or their family about why they’re missing.

Those are the worst times.

Over 34,000 kids in Michigan’s K-12 school system are experiencing homelessness — that’s in addition to the 15,500 kids younger than 5 experiencing homelessness.

For students, homelessness can mean living on the streets, but it can also mean sleeping on a family member’s couch or bouncing from one friend’s house to another. In my teaching career, I was aware of several students who had no permanent homes. I know now that there were probably many more who never told me what they were dealing with outside of class.

A new report from the Michigan League for Public Policy’s Kids Count project explores data around youth homelessness — in this case young people from age 12 to 24.

And that takes me back to those empty desks.

Nearly half the kids facing homelessness were chronically absent last year. And only 57% of high school seniors who were homeless graduated within four years.

Of course, I’m worried about the content those students are missing when they’re not in school. The missed lectures, the missed assignments, the missed tests … those things matter. But what I’m really worried about — and what I think most educators worry about when it comes to all their students at the end of the day — is far more important than grades and curriculum.

Adolescent brains are always changing, and decision-making and reasoning are not fully developed until people are well into their 20s.

Kids experiencing homelessness are in a state of trauma, and that trauma is compounded by the pressures that all youth face. Because of that, youth facing homelessness are even more susceptible to threats like sexual exploitation, substance misuse, physical victimization, and high-risk situations.

They’re more likely to be involved with the justice system (which means the possibility of even more missed school) and less likely to have support from family. In fact, 4,816 kids in the K-12 system who are homeless are “unaccompanied youth,” meaning they are not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian.

Our research found it’s an issue everywhere, in both urban and rural areas. In the Ingham County Intermediate School District—where I live and where I taught for many years—nearly 1266 students experienced homelessness in the last school year. That’s a lot of empty desks … and a lot of worried teachers.

There is work being done around the state, though, that could change the outlook. The League’s report highlights some organizations that are making a difference, and we recommend policymakers and other leaders take steps to implement systems to tackle the problem of youth homelessness.

The creation of more programming designed specifically for adolescents, such as drop-in centers, means more youth will be likely to access food, showers, and personal hygiene supplies, as well as other resources they need, like internet and community services.

And to help literally bring the issue home, the League has created an online tool in conjunction with the report to help partners determine the number of youth experiencing homelessness in a particular area. You can search for your community below.

That will do a lot to help kids currently struggling with homelessness, but fixing Michigan’s affordable housing crisis is imperative if we want any sort of long-term solution.

For every 100 renters with extremely low incomes, there are only 37 affordable housing units available. The Michigan Housing and Community Development Fund (MHCDF) could fund projects that create safe and stable housing, but it is not currently being funded.

A permanent and sustainable funding source for MHCDF is key to combating Michigan’s housing shortage.

It’s time to start building a Michigan where all kids can thrive, and that starts with more than a classroom desk.

Take a look at the full report, Homelessness for Unaccompanied Youth, to learn more about the challenges facing too many young people in Michigan.

The data underscores the need for action in every part of the state, and we hope our state and local policymakers will heed the report’s recommendations on what they can do to make a difference and reduce youth homelessness.

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