The School District of Philadelphia appears to be falling short of its federally mandated duty to identify students who are experiencing homelessness.

The district registered the lowest rate of identifying such students among the 20 largest school districts in the United States, according to a national report by Research for Action completed in January that looked at 2018-to-2019 figures, the latest available. The agency is a national nonprofit that studies education equity and has headquarters in Center City.

Compared with school districts in larger cities with higher numbers of homeless students, such as New York, Chicago, Houston, and Los Angeles, the district seems to have reported far fewer homeless students than likely exist, Research for Action discovered.

Around 31,000 Pennsylvania students were identified as being homeless between 2018 and 2019, nearly 8,000 of them in Philadelphia, advocates said, citing other reports.

Even though more than 56% of school-age children in Philadelphia live in poverty — the highest percentage among the biggest districts — the Philadelphia district identified just 4.4% who are experiencing homelessness, which is the lowest number recorded among big cities, the report said.

Research for Action found that high poverty rates indicate increased numbers of students experiencing homelessness. At more than 23%, Philadelphia has the highest overall rate of poverty among the largest U.S. cities, Census figures show.

Overall, schools in Pennsylvania “have a history of under-identifying students experiencing homelessness,” according to the report. The state ranks 36th out of 50 in identification of students experiencing homelessness per school-aged children living in poverty, the report said.

Asked to comment on the report, Philadelphia district officials issued a statement Wednesday that read: “Through our homeless education efforts, the School District of Philadelphia diligently works to support students whose families are dealing with housing insecurity. We identify these students in a variety of ways, including self-referrals, referrals from school-based staff and other district offices, and the community agencies also involved with providing services to children and families across the city.”

Severe consequences

“There are really severe consequences for undercounting,” said Anna Shaw-Amoah, coauthor of the report.

Federal law states these children are to be afforded services and supports that help them learn and stay in school while experiencing homelessness. “For a teenager, those supports can make a difference of whether they graduate or drop out or get on a GED track,” Shaw-Amoah said. “It can really make a difference in their futures.”

But if they’re not counted and identified, Shaw-Amoah added, they can’t be helped.

Fortunately for two young students, they were counted, and being known to the district helped them get through their experience with homelessness.

Asia Williams, 13, and her sister, Samyah Walker, 11, lived in a homeless shelter and couch-surfed with their mother, Ebonie Camp, in friends’ homes for two years and four months.

Camp, 33, said the girls lacked privacy at night, and their attendance and grades slipped at Universal Charter School at Alcorn in Grays Ferry.

“Samyah was emotional, but Asia was my backbone,” she said. The school helped the children, and now the family is housed in Mount Airy, and Camp is working as a personal care assistant.

In their statement, district officials said that “each year, we continuously improve our services.” They added that they will “work in concert with other city agencies responsible for addressing the immense needs of children and families experiencing homelessness.”

The mayor’s office also released a statement on the report, saying: “We appreciate the group’s focus on this important issue. The city works with the school district on ways to aid students and their families who are facing homelessness. We are all painfully aware of the shortage of affordable housing.”

Shaw-Amoah said that after sharing the report with the School District and the mayor’s office in February, “there was not as much comment from them as we hoped for. They didn’t address the findings as far as explaining why this is happening.

“But they didn’t dispute the report.”

An advocate for homeless people living in Philadelphia was not surprised by what Research for Action discovered.

“The undercounting of homeless kids here has been an issue for me for 10 years,” said the advocate, who asked not to be identified because the person works regularly with district officials. “It was only two or three years ago that the district added staff to the department that identifies these children. And in my experience, there hasn’t been communication between the charter schools and the district in identifying kids.”

Paige Joki, staff attorney for the Education Law Center in Center City, a group that advocates for quality public education, said that charter schools in Philadelphia “are not immune to under-identifying students who are experiencing homelessness. There is a key gap between the students who attend those programs and ones who are identified.”

The bulk of students experiencing homelessness in the city and the state are not on the street or in shelters but living doubled and tripled up with friends and relatives, Joki said, making finding and identifying them difficult.

“Far too often, the burden of identifying them rests on kids and their families, when U.S. law says it’s the job of the districts,” she added.

Often, schools miss the signs of homelessness altogether, mistaking them for aberrant behavior, Joki said.

“If a student doesn’t show up in school because their uniform isn’t clean,” she said, “or is falling asleep in class because of hunger, or they’re on the phone a lot because they need a place to sleep that night, schools often mistake this behavior for discipline problems.

“You need more personnel in school buildings trained to spot when a student needs help.”

At one point, there were many more such people working in schools, but they were let go by the administration of Gov. Tom Corbett, said Joe Willard, vice president of policy at the People’s Emergency Center, a West Philadelphia agency that helps children and families with homelessness.

“They cut school budgets around the state and our district here laid off nurses, social workers, and many counselors who were all the eyes and ears of homeless education system, able to identify who needed help.”

These days, the current administration, along with the General Assembly, “have not put in any money for identifying homeless kids. It’s just $5 million in federal money for the whole state. That’s it.”

State officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Advocates say that COVID-19 could only be complicating an already fraught situation for students experiencing homelessness. The report addressed this, adding, “The aftershocks of the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to bring more families to the tipping point of homelessness.”

Pointing to a potential bright spot, Willard said that the American Rescue Plan Act will include $800 million for school districts nationwide that could be used to help identify such students.

“When they get the money,” Willard said, “the Philadelphia School District and the Kenney administration should think about investing those dollars wisely.”