What Can the Data Really Tell us About the Number of Young Children Experiencing Homelessness in Illinois?

Experiencing homelessness in early childhood can have enduring impacts on a child’s well-being and school performance, but identifying just exactly how many young children in our state are experiencing homelessness has many challenges.

Challenges to Collecting Homelessness Data

While some entities in Illinois do collect data on students who experience homelessness as defined by the McKinney-Vento Act (simply speaking, children who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence), the actual total number of homeless children under the age of 6 in Illinois is difficult to determine.

Why is this? Well, for starters:

  • School districts, who do count the number of children experiencing homelessness in each district, are only able to count those under age 6 who are enrolled in Preschool for All (PFA) and/or Prevention Initiative (PI) programs.
  • Data do not include young children who experience homelessness during the summer or other shorter periods of time.
  • There is a stigma attached to reporting homelessness.
  • There can be confusion around definitions of homelessness, both with school personnel’s understanding of the McKinney-Vento definition (for example, not understanding that doubling up or staying with friends falls under the McKinney-Vento definition of homelessness) and with the existence of multiple and/or frequently revised definitions of homelessness used by other local or state agencies.

Because of these difficulties, we are only really able to view a narrow snapshot of early childhood homelessness in Illinois. Indeed, the Administration for Children and Families (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services) estimates that the children experiencing homelessness we are actually able to count, that is, those served by publicly funded early learning programs (Head Start, PI and PFA programs), make up only 10% of the total early childhood homeless population.

Publicly funded early childhood education programs only serve a small portion of Illinois children who experience homelessness.

This means that an estimated 90% of children under age 6 in Illinois who experience homelessness remain unserved by early childhood programs.

Two Methods of Estimation

Because of these challenges, some agencies have devised methods to estimate the number of children under age 6 experiencing homelessness on various geographic levels.

The U.S. Department of Education, for example, uses the methodology found in America’s Youngest Outcasts: A Report Card on Child Homelessness. The authors use research that indicates about 49% of all children experiencing homelessness in 2015 were under age 6 and then assume the education department’s count of K–12 children experiencing homelessness represent 51% of the overall number of children experiencing homelessness. They then extrapolate from the department’s count to estimate the total number of children experiencing homelessness and then take 49% of that count to come up with the estimate for children under age 6. Examples of this methodology can be found in Appendix I (p. 63) of the most recent Early Childhood Homelessness State Profiles report.

Another methodology is used by Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan. It makes use of the state’s public school data to estimate the number of children under age 5 who experienced homelessness during the school year (by state and county). According to the KIDS COUNT website, where this estimation is published, the numbers are based on five-year American Community Survey (ACS) estimate of the population under age 5 by county and multiplied by the percent homeless for first graders by county. The KIDS COUNT website says it’s “as accurate an estimate of the …population that exists, and a very conservative estimate” of the homeless rate among children under age 5.

Available Data

Estimation methods aside, the question remains:

What data have actually been collected and are readily available for everyday stakeholders, policy-makers, advocacy groups, and others who hope to capture a glimpse of the early childhood homelessness landscape in Illinois?

A good place to start is the data found on IECAM from the Illinois State Board of Education. These data, available by county for the years 2011-17, give us the number of public school homeless students enrolled in Preschool for All, kindergarten and grades 1, 2 and 3. The latest data available is reflected in this map, adapted from the latest Risk and Reach Report, showing the percent of homeless public school kindergartners by county in 2019.

Map of Illinois by County showing four levels of percentages for young children experiencing homelessness

Another source of data is Illinois Head Start’s yearly program information reports (PIRs). These reports list the state-level percentages of enrollees whose primary eligibility is listed as “homeless status.” These percentages include children under age 6, as well as a small number of pregnant women who participate in Head Start, Early Head Start, and Migrant and Seasonal Head Start programs.

Data from Illinois Head Start shows an increase in the percentage of Head Start participants whose primary type of eligibility is “status as homeless, ” and a decrease in the overall percentage of these individuals in Early HS/Migrant HS programs in Illinois.

IECAM users who are interested in Head Start PIR data can fill out a data request form on the IECAM website.

Additional data sources include the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) Illinois Report Card and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Exchange Point-in-Time Count.

The Illinois Report Card shows numbers and percentages of students experiencing homelessness enrolled in public schools in specific schools and across school districts and the state. While IECAM also receives this data from ISBE, the report card can provide further context (such as 5-year trend charts). In addition, the report card has recently been updated to include 2018 data.

HUD’s Point in-Time Count divides its information across service areas called continuums of care (CoCs) and provides data on the number of people affected by homelessness on a single night during the last 10 days of January. It then breaks down this number by different categories such as age, with one category being “under the age of 18.” The National Alliance to End Homelessness provides an easy-to-use tool based on this data allowing users to look up CoC-level information.

Additional resources include those provided by the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness (ICPH), such as the map below showing student homelessness by school district in Illinois, as well as across the nation. Another helpful resource from ICPH is this infographic: How Do States Account for Homeless Students?

Finally, other data options available involve finding proxy variables that, while not directly measuring families or children experiencing homelessness, may measure other conditions often associated with homelessness. For example, there is house eviction and rent burden data available from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab that can help paint a county-by-county picture of housing conditions. These data come from court records, research companies and state judiciaries and represent the largest accumulation of U.S. court records related to eviction ever compiled.

Data Limitations

To begin to put together the most accurate picture of early childhood homelessness, the following limitations, among others, should be considered:

  • Much of the available data include only young children who are enrolled in school district or Head Start early childhood programs. Therefore, data do not include homeless children not in school, or who are in school but whose homeless status is unknown to school personnel.
  • Available data are not standardized across geographic regions, age ranges or types of educational programs.
  • There is no single definition of homelessness used by all data collectors.
  • HUD’s CoC data may not include community or faith-based shelter information.
  • Limited access to shelters and services in rural areas increase the likelihood that homeless children in these areas are not being counted.

Access to accurate data on the number of young children and families experiencing homelessness in Illinois is a critical first step in crafting effective policies to address the problem. This is even more urgent considering that the younger and longer a child experiences homelessness, the greater the cumulative toll of negative outcomes, not only for the child, but for the people of Illinois as a whole.

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