A Crisis in Itself: Student Homelessness and Food Insecurity

Pandemic Crisis

For many children, where they will sleep at night or get their next meal are constant uncertainties. Times of crisis make these basic needs increasingly unpredictable. Many children find consistent sources of food, health and hygiene products, clothing, and more through their schools. Ohio's response to the coronavirus pandemic has required schools to shutter temporarily in an effort to halt the spread of the virus. These actions may save lives, but they pose significant challenges for students who rely on their schools for basic necessities.

For housing-insecure and homeless students, schools can provide access to showers, school nurses, clean clothes and basic hygiene: soap, shampoo, deodorant and toothbrushes. Closing of schools, even temporarily, means that many of these students will go without. In Ohio, approximately 35,000 students (or 2.01% of enrolled students) were considered homeless at some point in the 2018-19 school year. Students are considered homeless if they lack a permanent address at any time during the school year1. In Ohio, student homelessness rates2 vary by county (Figure 1), and the highest percentages of students experiencing homelessness are in Morgan (8.20%), Monroe (7.99%), Highland (6.40%), and Lucas (5.68%) counties.


Figure 1: Students Experiencing Homelessness as Share of Enrollment by County


During public health emergencies, like the current pandemic, homeless populations are particularly vulnerable due to their limited access to shelter, food, and personal hygiene facilities. Recommendations from agencies such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to practice social distancing and stock up on supplies are nearly impossible without a permanent residence. Homeless students face additional challenges: They are more concentrated in urban areas (Figure 2) (a concerning factor with a virus that spreads through close contact); and, with schools and libraries possibly closed for the remainder of the academic year, many students lose their learning environment and their access to the internet. As many schools move to online learning platforms, students without access to a computer or the internet at home are at a disadvantage.


Figure 2: Homeless Students as Share of Enrollment by Typology3


Food insecurity is also an issue for both homeless and low-income populations. Nearly 48% of all enrolled students are eligible for free or reduced school lunches (Figure 3). Eligibility for these programs is determined by household income4, indicating that a large percentage of students are living below the poverty line and rely on school meals for nourishment.


Figure 3: Ohio Counties with the Highest Percentage of Students Eligible for Free or Reduced Lunches


As state leaders take measures to minimize the spread of the coronavirus throughout Ohio, resources are being allocated to ensure that children who are housing and/or food insecure are getting the assistance they need. Shelters and homeless service agencies are working to provide safe, clean environments and advocating for additional homelessness prevention funding. To help maintain meal services, Ohio schools can file a waiver to continue distributing food to students most in need. Some communities are even using school buses to pass out free breakfasts and lunches, which requires minimal contact. When the threat of the coronavirus passes, students, schools and communities will work their way back to normal. For homeless and food-insecure students, that vulnerability lingers far beyond the current crisis.


1Students meet the McKinney-Vento definition of homeless when they lack a fixed, regular, adequate nighttime residence. Students who are sharing the housing of another person (doubled up) due to loss of housing, economic hardship or similar reason meet the definition of homeless. This includes students living in motels, hotels, RV parks or campgrounds due to lack of alternative adequate accommodations, as well as those living in emergency or transitional shelters or abandoned in hospitals.

2Ohio Department of Education (public data request; based on 2018–2019 school year)

3Ohio Department of Education (public data request; based on 2018–2019 school year)

4Ohio Department of Education Office of Integrated Support National School Lunch Program (NSLP) data, 2019 – 2020. An applicant is considered eligible for free meal benefits if the household income is at or less than 130% of the USDA established poverty guidelines or if the student receives food stamps or Ohio Works First (OWF) benefits. An applicant is considered eligible for reduced price meal benefits if the household income is at or less than 185% of the USDA established poverty guidelines.