Some districts are seeing increases of 50 to 100 percent or more and are so understaffed that it takes weeks to help families, according to a new survey. Educators say students without a stable home are at greater risk of becoming truants, developing behavioral problems and failing in school.
An estimated 2 million children are at risk of homelessness because of the foreclosure crisis and economic downturn, according to First Focus, a child advocacy organization that examined Census and economic data.
In cities where rents are high, such as San Francisco, a family that loses its home could spend months, even years, trying to find another.
Alex Rodriguez, 32, and Rosa Estevez, 26, both lost their jobs -- he at a car parts store, she an insurance office -- when their companies left San Francisco. Within two months, they and their 12-year-old son were homeless. They wound up at Rafael House, a family shelter.
Ms. Estevez, who is pregnant, said their son is often depressed.
"We try to stay upbeat for him," she said, "but I've noticed that he is not as interested in school any more."
A survey of more than 1,700 school districts released Friday by First Focus and The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, both Washington-based nonprofits, found unprecedented jumps in homeless students in the first three months of the school year.
Most districts surveyed said they had identified more homeless students in the first three months than they had at the same point last year. About 330 districts already have identified at least as many homeless students this school year as they did in the entire previous year. About 10 percent of the 16,000 school districts across the country responded.
School district homeless liaisons, whose jobs are to identify and help homeless students, believe the numbers are even higher, said Barbara Duffield, the executive director of the association for homeless children.
Although the U.S. Department of Education still is tallying the number of homeless students for 2007-08, all indications point to a problem with no end in sight, said John McLaughlin, the coordinator of the department's homeless assistance program for school districts.
Congress approved $3.9 billion in its last spending bill to aid communities ravaged by the foreclosure crisis, said Philip Mangano, the director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. Advocates for homeless children are asking the Senate for $72 million in emergency funding for the Education Department's homeless children and youth programs.
The influx of homeless students also is costing school districts.
Federal law requires state and local school agencies to provide homeless students transportation to the school they began the year attending, along with meals, books and other support.
Some districts report that transportation bills are eating up more than half of their funds for homeless assistance.