Student homelessness trends in Camden and the looming impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic

Care management & redesign Pregnancy & children

A recent collaboration between the Camden City School District (CCSD), Nemours Children’s Health System, and the Camden Coalition leveraged existing partnerships and data infrastructures created through the Camden Promise Neighborhood to study student homelessness trends in Camden. Two recent reports (Identified Student Homelessness in Camden City Schools and Student Homelessness in the Camden City School District) released by the Camden Coalition, CCSD, and Nemours, detail the increasing rates of student homelessness in Camden and the effects of housing instability on educational outcomes. The COVID-19 pandemic, with its disproportionate impacts on lower income, minority communities, is likely to further exacerbate these trends and require additional resources and multi-agency collaborative solutions to address.

The reports highlight that the Camden City School District has one of the highest rates statewide of students identified as experiencing homelessness — about 1 out of every 20 students was identified as experiencing homelessness in more recent years. Identification of homelessness has been on the rise since the 2014-2015 school year, likely attributable to a combination of improved capacity by CCSD to identify displaced families as well as macro-level trends, including an influx of Hispanic and Latino students from Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017. Furthermore, many students enroll in CCSD in the midst of an episode of homelessness, often leaving other districts and schools to come to CCSD, and ultimately stay in the district. As a result, homelessness leads to a net increase in CCSD enrollment, as more students experiencing homelessness enter CCSD than exit. 

Even though the Camden City School District has become a leading NJ district in its ability to identify and support students experiencing homelessness, there are probably many more homeless students who never come to the attention of school staff. Homelessness often goes unidentified for a variety of reasons: 

  • families might be unaware that their current situation grants them rights to additional resources and supports; 
  • negative social stigmas attached to homelessness might lead families to keep their situation secret; and 
  • some families might fear becoming involved with other agencies like child protective services or immigration and naturalizations. 

Our preliminary efforts to integrate cross-agency data and find innovative methods for identifying additional children and families experiencing homelessness has yielded some evidence to the extent of this problem. Other health and human service systems in Camden become aware of student homelessness when it occurs. Combining information from these systems and working together could potentially expand the number of students who are identified and served by CCSD when homelessness strikes.

Homelessness is linked to more educational challenges at the group level, including lower attendance rates, greater likelihood of entering or leaving the district, greater rates of changing schools during the middle of the year, lower proficiency on standardized tests, and higher likelihoods of behind held back a grade. Roughly 1 in 5 students who are identified as homeless remain homeless for two or more school years; these students demonstrate even greater challenges in school mobility, attendance and other outcomes.

The COVID-19 pandemic likely further complicated many of these dynamics. Lower income and minority communities like Camden were hit disproportionately by the pandemic due to a variety of forces, including higher exposure risks, higher rates of preexisting conditions, limited access to services, and other vulnerabilities. Nationwide, 32 percent of Black adults and 41 percent of Latinx adults experienced job loss due to the pandemic, compared with only 24 percent of white adults. A slow economic recovery will lead to ongoing elevated unemployment, high rent burden among low-income renter households, continued accumulation of unpaid rent, and continued risk of eviction. An eviction and foreclosure moratorium provided a short term reprieve from an immediate housing crisis, but as the moratorium gets lifted and the economic outlook remains fragile, there will likely be a looming homelessness crisis to be reckoned with. We also anticipate that the shift to remote learning for one and a half school years will have made homelessness detection all the more difficult, as there are additional barriers to engagement between CCSD staff and families. 

As a result of the pandemic, there is a significant need to steer additional resources to schools – particularly those in under-resourced, low-income communities – to support identification and services for families experiencing homelessness. Cross-sector collaborations, like the Camden Promise Neighborhood, with a focus on wrap-around services and integrated data, will also be critical for ensuring that families get the support they need, both inside and outside of schools. Additional funding for integrated data work and research will also be critical for understanding the subsequent economic, social, and service-system impacts of COVID-19. 

Tracking student homelessness through data sharing

The Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers first partnered with the Camden City School District (CCSD) in 2015 to execute a data sharing agreement that allowed the Camden Coalition to link individual-level education and health data to better understand children and families with chronic absenteeism who often confront complex health and social needs, and develop strategies to better support their needs. This cross-sector data sharing initiative expanded the Camden Coalition’s integrated data system initiative, Camden ARISE, to include additional partners and domains and allowed the Camden Coalition and CCSD to pilot a case management program to engage a subset of these families to better understand their barriers and needs. Simultaneously, the Camden Coalition worked with CCSD to train their family support staff on the Coalition’s COACH model, a framework for building authentic healing relationships with patients, to strengthen the district’s ability to engage families with complex needs.

The Camden Promise Neighborhood (CPN) is a place-based, collective impact effort designed to improve opportunities for children growing up in Camden. The CPN, launched by Center for Family Services (CFS) in 2017, brought cross-sector organizations together with residents and other stakeholders to implement evidence-based services to support children and families at every age and every stage of development and create a neighborhood of opportunity where children can follow a pathway to college and career. With a heavy emphasis on outcomes and data-driven continuous improvement, the CPN allowed the cross-sector data partnerships of Camden ARISE to continue to flourish, as new partners joined the collaboration and new opportunities to use data to better support the work continued to emerge. 

This blog post is the first in a two part series that details children and family homelessness related work in Camden. The second part will detail strategies being implemented as part of the Camden Promise Neighborhood. 


The research reported here was supported, in part, by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant R305H190067 to Nemours Children’s Health System. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education.