03/15/2012 10:36 am ET Updated May 15, 2012

Impact of Recession Still Being Felt by Children, Schools

According to recent reports, the economy is showing signs of recovery. But the impact of the recession, particularly on children, will be felt far into the future.

As the foreclosure crisis and continued unemployment push poverty to record levels , many Americans are sliding into homelessness. The Obama Administration estimates that family homelessness increased by 20 percent from 2007 to 2010 .

And while the loss of a home is traumatic for anyone, it is especially so for children. The mental, emotional, and economic consequences can extend far into adulthood.

Recent estimates put the numbers of homeless children at 1.6 million. The increase is dramatic: last year, public schools across the country reported a 38 percent rise in the number of homeless students identified since 2007.

Living in shelters, cars, or doubled-up with family or friends, homeless children suffer from increased illness, hunger, anxiety, and depression. They are also at risk of having their education disrupted; many are pulled out of their school and transferred to a new one -- or even denied access to school altogether. For children who have already lost their home, this additional loss can be devastating.

Irene, S., a diabetic girl in Texas, described the impact of becoming homeless and being pulled out of school: "I didn't get to say bye to any of my friends, and I never went back to that school. I cried so much that my blood sugar was at 550. A doctor later told me that for my age, I was lucky not to have gone into a coma. Emotions get in the way of staying healthy sometimes; in this case, the stress hurt me the most."

The federal McKinney-Vento Education Act guarantees many important protections. Under the law, children have the right to remain in the same school when they become homeless. Schools are also required to provide free transportation, meals, and access to extra-curricular activities. This provides vital stability when the rest of their lives have been turned upside-down. It also ensures these children have access to meals and the basic health services schools provide.

Unfortunately, many parents don't know their children have these rights -- and without resources and struggling with basic survival needs, information is hard to come by. Even when parents know their rights, the law is still often violated. Some schools aren't aware of or simply ignore their legal obligations to homeless children. As a result, these kids can lose their school at the same time they lose their home.

This double loss affects their well-being, as it did for Irene. It also affects their future. Studies show that children who are forced to repeatedly change schools are 50 percent less likely to graduate from high school. Worse, people who don't graduate are more than twice as likely to slip into poverty in a single year. This affects not only those children, but our productivity as a nation.

What can be done? One way to address this issue is to educate schools and parents about kids' rights and help ensure they are asserted. The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty recently partnered with DLA Piper, a major national law firm, to create Project LEARN. Through this program, we train volunteer lawyers across the country to help homeless families protect their children's education rights. And when that fails, we're ready to go to court to protect them.

More work is needed. While we've broadened our reach through Project LEARN, there are many more homeless children and families than we can help right now. We're working to expand our network to reach more of them.

Congress can help too. The McKinney-Vento program is currently funded at $65 million, the same amount as in 2009, despite a dramatic increase in need. And while this may seem like a lot of money to the average person, it isn't in the context of federal spending. Only 11 percent of school districts receive any money through the program.

Further, while homeless children need an education, they also need a home. That's why we're calling on Congress to enact HR 32, a no cost, bipartisan bill sponsored by Rep. Judy Biggert that would open up eligibility for housing programs to help more homeless children. We're also calling on Congress to increase support for homeless aid programs proposed by President Obama and fund the National Housing Trust Fund.

Last year, the president said: "it is simply unacceptable for families and children to be homeless in America." I agree. It is essential that we take action now to ensure the basic human rights of homeless and poor children to an education and to a home.