Earlier this month, I joined colleagues from the Department of Education as part of a listening session with a diverse group of participants to hear how federal agencies can continue to support collaboration in communities to prevent and end homelessness. Over the course of 4 days, around 3,000 people gathered in Atlanta, GA, to attend the National Elementary and Secondary Act (ESEA) conference. This year’s theme – Together for Equity – focused on the broad topics of instruction, leadership, and policy to advance ESEA’s goal of ensuring all students have access to and receive the education and resources they need to be successful.
This theme – Together for Equity - resonated with me as I thought about the work happening in communities and at the state and national level to strengthen our skills and capacity to center racial equity across efforts to prevent and end homelessness. And I was reminded that in order to achieve racial equity in efforts to prevent and end homelessness, it’s essential for those systems—like education—that impact or contribute to the disparities in who is experiencing or is most likely to experience homelessness, to also be focusing their efforts on achieving equitable outcomes for the most under-served and disadvantaged populations.
We know that education is a pathway filled with opportunity and long-term success for countless individuals. At the same time, the education system can hinder success, particularly in communities of color, when there are inequities across domains like academic achievement, disciplinary practices, and school investments. Lack of a high school diploma or GED is the highest risk factor for experiencing youth homelessness – and similarly, youth experiencing homelessness are much less likely to remain in school. We also know that people of color are disproportionately impacted by homelessness.
Paying attention to the connection between education and homelessness, along with using demographic data to better understand existing disparities within the homelessness services system, are key elements of the coordinated community plans being developed by grantees participating in the HUD-funded Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program (YHDP). As communities are designing their local YHDP plans for preventing and ending youth homelessness, they are using data to ask hard questions about how the current response to homelessness is—and is not—reinforcing existing disparities across communities of color.
When you begin to ask those difficult questions – who is entering the homelessness assistance system? who is more likely to be connected to permanent housing? who is more likely to linger in shelter? who is more likely to return to homelessness? – you realize that well-intentioned efforts to ensure equality are not working. Equality works when everyone starts from the same place, has the same level of need, and faces the same barriers. Instead, we need to work toward equity, acknowledging up front the existing disparities among different groups and recognizing the structural and environmental contributors to such disparities. But what does that mean for our efforts to prevent and end homelessness? And what role does education play in those efforts?
In schools, an equity perspective means some students will need more comprehensive supports and resources while others can use the tools they already have to not only succeed but also play a role in ensuring and supporting the success of their peers. As schools center equity in their efforts to eliminate disparities in educational outcomes, they should consider opportunities for how other partners – including homelessness service system leaders – can engage in that work. Similarly, homelessness service system leaders should be inviting education leaders to participate in their equity efforts, as well. We should be exploring opportunities to develop shared equity goals across the systems that protect and enrich our communities—education, housing, employment, and health care—so that we build places where all residents can thrive. And those shared goals should center efforts around the needs and strengths of people who are most likely to experience disparities, such as poor educational outcomes or homelessness. In doing so, communities will develop strategies that will positively impact everyone .