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The number of Philly high school students who are homeless may be four times higher than what’s been reported

“The numbers in the counts are shockingly high,” a researcher said.

Porsha Burton of Center City said she graduated from Bensalem High School in 2006 without people learning that she was homeless. She now helps young people experiencing homelessness.
Porsha Burton of Center City said she graduated from Bensalem High School in 2006 without people learning that she was homeless. She now helps young people experiencing homelessness.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

The number of public high school students who are homeless in Philadelphia may be four times greater than official figures, according to a newly released report.

Based on statistics collected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 2‚954 public high school students living homeless in Philadelphia in the spring of 2019, compared with 690 students identified by the School District of Philadelphia. Total high school student enrollment is 61,757, according to district figures.

Overall in Pennsylvania, 31,822 public high school students were found to be homeless in the spring of 2019 — 23,073 more than the 8,749 identified by the state Department of Education, according to the report.

Nationwide, 509,025 public high school students in 24 states experienced homelessness during the same period — three times the number recognized by the states’ education agencies.

The statistics were collected in a survey of students as part of the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), conducted every two years. The 2019 findings, the latest available, were included in a report called “High School Students Experiencing Homelessness,” released in late June. Aside from Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia School District, 23 states and 11 local school districts opted to participate in the survey.

“The numbers in the counts are shockingly high,” said J.J. Cutuli, senior research scientist at the Center for Healthcare Delivery Science with Nemours Children’s Health System, a multi-state pediatric health system with a hub in Wilmington at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children. He was one of four report authors, which also included Dan Treglia, a professor of practice and a homelessness expert at the University of Pennsylvania.

Cutuli added that although there’s a broad general acceptance that official homelessness counts are lower than reality, “a lot of people’s jaws hit the floor when they saw these numbers.”

» READ MORE: Philadelphia under-identifies students experiencing homelessness at higher rates than any other large U.S. district

‘They’re fluid, they’re hidden’

High school students are especially difficult to categorize as being homeless because young people feel a stigma about that revelation, experts say.

“It’s hard for educators to notice these kids,” said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a national nonprofit working to overcome homelessness headquartered in Washington, D.C.

“Young people won’t advertise their homelessness. They’re afraid something will happen to them if they tell, so they wear clothes that make them look like other students. And they may stay in other people’s houses rather than on the street or in a shelter.

“They’re fluid, they’re hidden. They don’t the fit stereotype of homeless adults.”

Porsha Burton, 32, a social service worker who lives in Center City, lived a clandestine life as a homeless teenager attending Bensalem High School.

“My parents and I didn’t see eye to eye and they were overwhelmed with four kids,” she said. “It wasn’t a good fit, so I left our home in North Philadelphia.”

Placed in a residence in Bensalem, Burton soon ran away and began attending the high school. No one in Bensalem’s administration knew Burton’s story, she said. Throughout her time there, she slept in someone’s tool shed, at bus shelters, or in the homes of friends in Bensalem and North Philadelphia. She was sometimes victimized by violence. “I was always afraid the school would find out and kick me out,” she said.

Burton graduated in 2006, and now attends Peirce College, studying health administration. She helps high school students experiencing homelessness in her current job, which she does not want to identify.

“All I wanted to do during my homeless journey was to live my life,” she said.

» READ MORE: This Philly high school senior who was homeless is now sought by 50 colleges

The discrepancies in data collection

The federal Department of Education relies on states and local school districts to compile data, often through school registration forms that ask about homelessness, said Cutuli.

“A lot of families don’t answer because they fear unwanted agency involvement,” he said.

Throughout the school year, districts work to identify homeless kids so they can be matched with services, experts say. But identifying them can be a slow, difficult process, especially if funding is low.

In a statement, the School District of Philadelphia said it provides services to identify students experiencing homelessness, but recognizes that there are more students who need to be reached.

“We are committed to continuing to identify and support this population of students,” the statement said. It added that the district will focus on raising families’ awareness of rights and services afforded by federal law to students who are homeless.

A spokesperson for the city said that Philadelphia supports the School District’s efforts. The spokesperson pointed out that Philadelphia’s Continuum of Care Board includes a Young Adult Leadership Committee made up of people who’ve experienced homelessness, and who participate in policy making and advocating for a more youth-friendly homeless system.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development offers a count of people who are homeless, but it mainly tallies people living in shelters or on the streets on a single night of the year, missing high school kids who often live doubled- and tripled-up in others’ homes, Treglia said.

Cutuli said the CDC asks teenagers to anonymously answer more nuanced questions about their living circumstances, which he believes coaxes honesty and accuracy.

Every two years since the late 1980s, the CDC has administered a health-related survey to high schoolers. Initially, the survey’s aim was to understand the spread of AIDS.

Over time, two homelessness questions were added, one asking where the student usually slept over the last 30 days, which could include a parent’s home, a shelter, motel, car, friend’s or family member’s home. The second asks students whether they slept away from their parents because they were kicked out, ran away, or were abandoned.

Treglia said the questions are informed by a federal definition of homeless children and youths as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”

» READ MORE: N.J. hospitals can now build housing for those experiencing homelessness, connecting need to services

Who is more likely homeless

The report showed that homelessness was more likely among students who were male, LGBTQ, Black, Hispanic, or Native American/Hawaiian.

Students who experienced homelessness reported higher rates of sexual victimization, physical victimization, and having been bullied.

They also reported higher rates of hard drug use, alcohol abuse, risky sexual behavior, and poor grades, as well as severe suicidality, which includes thinking about dying by suicide, suicide plans, and suicide attempts.

Getting the numbers right of kids who are homeless is vital for funding programs that serve them, said Kathy Desmond, president of People’s Emergency Center, a West Philadelphia agency helping those who are homeless. Cutuli and Treglia are visiting scholars with PEC.

“Chronically under-counting leads to chronic under-resourcing of services for these youth,” Desmond said. “It’s a concerning disparity.”

Of the various means for counting high schoolers experiencing homelessness, Desmond said the CDC methodology seems the most accurate:

“I put more stock in youth telling us who’s homeless because you’re hearing from them directly.”

In addition to a discussion of homeless counts, the report called for prioritizing funding for federal education programs designed to identify and address student homelessness, as well as better sharing of information across service sectors, including housing, education, substance abuse, and mental health.

It also emphasized the need to reduce poverty and systemic racism and heterosexism, “which place students from marginalized groups at higher risk of homelessness.”