Quantifying public-school students with disabilities experiencing homelessness

Eric Rubenstein, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Epidemiology, Boston University School of Public Health, explains why continued data collection for public school students with disabilities that experience homelessness is crucial for better support and care in this population.

In this Contemporary Pediatrics® interview, Eric Rubenstein, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Epidemiology, Boston University School of Public Health, discusses the findings of his recent study aimed at quantifying students with disabilities experiencing homelessness, compared to students without disabilities.

The study, recently published in Pediatrics, used data from the Federal and State Departments of Education. Initially, data was to be collected from all 50 states, but many did not have publicly available school enrollment data, making it difficult to expand the study on a national level. As a result, the study focused on the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast sections of the United States, where data was accessible for 7 states and 1 district. Data in the study came from Connecticut; Washington, DC; Delaware; Massachusetts; Maine; New Jersey; New York; and Rhode Island, during the 2019 to 2020 school year.

The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) and the McKinney-Vento Homelessness in Education Act (McKinney-Vento) are 2 federal, US laws designed to protect the rights of students with disabilities and the rights of unhoused students, according to the study. Minimum requirements for special education and protections for unhoused students are dictated by IDEA and McKinney-Vento. Education and housing data from each state’s department of education are available separately but haven’t been linked for students with disabilities to calculating demographic and epidemiologic statistics.

“What we aimed to do was to link these 2 data sets in some Northeast US states, to be able to get these kind of epidemiological, public health population level statistics from these raw numbers that are necessary to report by these federal laws,” said Rubenstein.

Across the 7 states and Washington, DC, authors found that 4.7% of students with disabilities experienced homelessness, 58% greater than the percentage of students without disabilities (95% confidence interval 1.57-1.59). 

Though risk ratios varied, a greater percentage of students with disabilities experiencing homelessness was present in all states compared to students without disabilities. Washington, DC had the highest percentage of students with disabilities experiencing homelessness at 9.4% while Connecticut had the lowest at 1.2%.

Finding data on a larger scale has proven difficult, further emphasizing the need for continued data collection.

“These are hard things to measure and there’s a lot of stigma and ableism and reason why a family may not try to get services or disclose their housing information,” Rubenstein said. “In addition, with housing insecurity, you move a lot which might make it hard to get disability evaluations. We think this is a meaningful and important estimate, but probably leans toward the low side. Hopefully, as we get better at understanding how these data are collected and assessing their quality, we’ll be able to adjust and figure out how to more accurately represent this population.”


Bock E, Brochu P, Rubenstein E. Homelessness and disability in public-school students. Pediatrics. 2023;151(4):e2022059885. doi:10.1542/peds.2022-059885

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