By Leslie Rohr
Homelessness is a growing issue in the United States, and my hometown of Kenai is no exception. Across the country and in Kenai, many people experiencing homelessness are those we least expect: kids sitting next to other kids in classrooms. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 1.3 million youth were experiencing homelessness on any given day in America and in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, 250 students were identified as homeless. Unfortunately, for many of these young people, the pandemic further weakened their connection to the single greatest source of stability and support in their lives — school — with alarming consequences.
Pandemic-related trends in education, including chronic absences and declines in enrollment for K-12 students, have been exacerbated by challenges in identifying and supporting students experiencing homelessness, with significant long-term consequences. These trends all contribute to the likelihood that a student won’t complete high school, which in turn is the single greatest factor for homelessness among young people. Education is a critical intervention, and sustaining pandemic-era levels of support for youth experiencing homelessness is imperative to reversing these trends.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski has long been a champion for students experiencing homelessness. In March 2021, she offered a bipartisan amendment to set aside funds to support the education of children and youth experiencing homelessness. That amendment created what is now known as the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Homeless Children and Youth Fund. ARP-HCY provided $800 million in one-time funds, which must be spent by January 2025, to identify and assist youth experiencing homelessness. They have helped create lasting changes in how our public schools respond to student homelessness and meet urgent needs.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District plans to use these funds to help meet a broad set of needs: transportation and vehicle repairs so students can continue attending school; mental health services so that youth experiencing homelessness are supported when navigating the stressors of their lives, and cellphones so these youth are able to stay in communication with their schools and community resources. ARP-HCY also has given the district the opportunity to add more staffing hours, which in turn gives more resources to identify and engage with families and youth experiencing homelessness. Additionally, ARP-HCY funds are being used to create paid work experience positions for student workers over the summer. This opportunity will help youth to learn work expectations, teach important skills, and give youth experience to add to a resume. ARP-HCY has changed lives. They are proof that targeting educational investments to the most vulnerable students allow schools and community agencies to increase their capacity to identify, re-engage, and support children and youth experiencing homelessness at a time of growing need.
To meet the increased needs here in Kenai and across the country, we need to sustain this kind of investment. In consideration of the final FY23 budget, I urge all Congress members to follow the leadership of Sen. Lisa Murkowski by continuing the COVID-era funds in the education of homeless children and youth. Educators, providers, and policymakers must collaborate around solutions that give every child the support necessary to thrive. Education is the only lasting solution that provides the support and tools necessary for children to cope, succeed and thrive as adults. We can break cycles of homelessness, and education makes that possible — it is an investment in our community, our state, and our country.
Leslie Rohr is executive director at Love INC of the Kenai Peninsula.