THE BLOG
11/17/2014 11:39 am ET Updated Jan 17, 2015

The $65 Dollar "Solution"

Thanksgiving is one of those holidays when we tend to think about the less fortunate, and this year, I'll be thinking specifically about two numbers: $49 and $65.

The first number is the average cost of a Thanksgiving feast for a family of 10. According to the American Farm Bureau Association, all that turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and so forth has added up to roughly $49 for several years running. (That figure doesn't include wine, antacids or all the hours spent in the kitchen.)

And the second number? That represents the federal government's spending on education for homeless students. The math is pretty straightforward: About 1 million kids experience homelessness each year, and the federal program for keeping these kids in school -- known as Education for Homeless Children and Youth, or EHCY -- is funded at $65 million, or $65 per student.

So when you're clearing the dishes from the table this Thanksgiving, look around and consider that you've just consumed (quite literally) about 75percent of the budget for educating one homeless child. Does something about that seem out of balance to you? It's not that we're spending too much on Thanksgiving; it's simply that we haven't put much thought into the value of educating our homeless children.

When a child becomes homeless -- whether due to an abusive home situation or family financial hardship -- school can suddenly become a very low priority. Homeless kids are exponentially more vulnerable to hunger, crime, drugs and sexual predators. The future seems especially distant when the present is a constant struggle. In other words, it's hard to worry about life after high school when you can't be sure where you're sleeping tonight.

Given all the pressures they face, it should come as no surprise that homeless kids tend to under-perform in school compared to their peers. According to the Education Department's National Center for Homeless Education, only 49 percent of homeless high school students meet state proficiency standards in reading, 42 percent in math and 29 percent in science. As these students fall further and further behind, they become more and more likely to drop out of school entirely, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and increasing their risk for chronic homelessness as adults.

Clearly, our homeless students face immense challenges in school. The question is, How well are we responding to support them through those challenges? I can say from experience that $65 seems clearly inadequate for meeting the need. At Communities In Schools, we spend an average of $200 per student per year to help at-risk kids stay in school, including many kids who are experiencing homelessness. Studies show that we're one of the most efficient organizations working in this space, staffed with trained professionals who are experts in identifying problem students and matching them up with the resources they need.

For school districts without a community partner such as CIS, the challenge is even greater, and the costs substantially higher. EHCY requires a "homeless liaison" in every school district -- a task that usually falls on an overworked administrator with no specialized training or experience. These well-meaning individuals are then responsible for ensuring that homeless students receive support for transportation, tutoring, counseling and a host of other needs. The costs can be steep: According to a July 2014 report from the General Accounting Office, one homeless liaison reported spending $550,000 in a single year to provide cabs for students without a fixed address.

In addition to EHCY, every community has resources available -- both public and private -- to help with the needs of homeless students, but leveraging those resources can be a daunting, time-consuming task. Without proper training in social work, many homeless liaisons appear to overlook community resources simply because they don't know how to navigate the maze of available providers. In fact, according to the GAO, only 6 out of 20 districts studied could report that they "assisted homeless youth in accessing public benefits, such as for health care or food."

So let's go back to that $65 figure that the federal government provides for homeless education: Even in the best of circumstances, it seems like an inadequate investment, based on our long history serving at-risk students. When you factor in the inefficiencies that come with a lack of expertise in serving these populations, the shortfall would appear to be many times greater.

In other words, under the present system, homeless students stand very little chance of getting the support they need to stay in school and move up in life.

What's the solution? Given the current political and economic climate, EHCY is unlikely to get significant new funding any time soon. According to the Government Accountability Office, homeless children and youth are served by at least seven federal programs with a combined budget of approximately $39 billion. Even with zero additional spending, it's safe to assume that a little reorganization and re-prioritization among those programs could direct more dollars to homeless education, the only long-term solution to the homeless problem.

Of course, any political solution will take time, and that doesn't do anything to help the estimated 1 million kids who will face homelessness over the next 12 months. So this Thanksgiving, as you polish off that $49 feast, I hope you'll consider making a donation to one of the many organizations serving homeless youth, whether nationwide or in your own community.

It may not be a long-term solution, but it's a beautiful way to celebrate the holiday and express your thanks.