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New Study Finds That 4.2 Million Kids Experience Homelessness Each Year

Chris Kindred for NPR

Marquan Ellis was evicted from his home in Las Vegas, Nevada when he was 18.

His mother battled with a drug and gambling addiction while he stayed at his godmother's house. But he couldn't stay there forever.

He found his way to the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth where he enrolled in the independent living program.

He isn't sure what he would have done if he hadn't found that program: "I would have been on the street looking for someone to help, looking for my next meal, looking for my next shower, looking for my next place to sleep."

Like Ellis, some 4.2 million young people experience unaccompanied homelessness in the course of a year, according to a new study from Chapin Hall a research center at the University of Chicago.

One in 30 teens experience some type of homelessness and it's more common the older you get: one in 10 for young people aged 18 to 25. The study also found that African American youth are 82 percent more likely to experience homelessness.

Marquan was one of those young black men in Nevada, which has the highest rate of unsheltered youth in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This refers to people sleeping on the streets, in cars or in parks. Cities like San Francisco, Las Vegas and San Jose had high rates of unaccompanied youth that were unsheltered.

Young people often end up homeless because of family breakdown, abuse or abandonment and it's a problem that isn't properly addressed, says Arash Ghafoori, the executive director of the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth.

"We really need to dial back and focus more on prevention," he says. "There's certain subsets of homeless youth that really require culturally sensitive and specifically tailored services."

The LGBTQ community is one of those communities; they are 120 percent more likely to experience youth homelessness than other people, according to the new report.

This population is often hidden, and this new study is a rare look at the scope of the problem; other takeaways include that these young adults often don't show up for school, or frequently switch between schools. As a result, many don't have high school diplomas.

"This is a stage in which young people are developing experiences and skills that will stay with them throughout their lives," says Matthew Morton, a research fellow at Chapin Hall and the lead researcher on the report. "Every day of homelessness is a missed opportunity to support their healthy development and also their capacity to contribute to stronger communities and local economies."

Schools are uniquely positioned to reach these populations — and some of the biggest school districts in the country are facing this problem too. In New York, new data showed that 110,000 students had no permanent place to sleep at night. The number is double what it was a decade ago.

The same goes for Texas where there are more than 113,000 000 homeless students and about 16,800 of those kids were unaccompanied by a legal guardian. Just this week, Texas Appleseed, a public service law center based in Austin, released a report summarizing nearly 100 interviews with young peoplewho had experienced or were experiencing homelessness in Texas.

"Schools are at the front line of this issue to make sure all kids needs are met," says Jeanne Stamp, the director of the Texas Homeless Education Office, a state program funded by the federal law that protects homeless youth. She trains homeless liaisons in Texas school districts that ensure homeless students have transportation, uniforms or school supplies, and they work to connect families to community resources such as food pantries.

It's important for schools to be the one stable place for kids, where they can keep their friends and teachers, Stamp says.

"Children who move around a lot or live in poverty tend to not do well academically," she says. "That instability really undermines their ability to learn."

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Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Ariana Figueroa