An illustration that has several faces looking sad and contemplative. There are also desks and houses representing homeless students on the illustration, too.
(Matt Manley for the Center for Public Integrity)
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A collaborative Center for Public Integrity investigation that put a sobering number on local school districts’ failure to help homeless students — and showed ways to improve — is being honored with the Stewart B. McKinney Award recognizing contributions to the understanding of homelessness in the U.S.

Unhoused and Undercounted,” in partnership with The Seattle Times, Street Sense Media and WAMU/DCist, will receive the award at the National Homelessness Law Center’s 2023 Human Right to Housing Awards ceremony in October.

Previous recipients include NBA star John Wall and author Barbara Ehrenreich. The award is named after the congressman who was the primary sponsor of 1987 legislation that lays out homeless students’ rights in school, now called the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

Public Integrity reporters Amy DiPierro and Corey Mitchell wrote an investigation that estimated, with a detailed data analysis, that roughly 300,000 students entitled to help through that law were falling through the cracks because their schools had not identified them as homeless.

The Seattle Times’ stories showed that Washington state schools were suspending and expelling homeless students at higher rates, while innovations at one district helped narrow the homeless-student graduation gap.

Street Sense and WAMU/DCist teamed up to show that D.C. schools with the highest rates of student homelessness weren’t getting federal funding earmarked for these children.

Other local newsrooms that later joined the collaboration produced stories identifying both problems and solutions

“The Unhoused & Undercounted series has used the tools of excellent journalism, interviews, storytelling, and data to raise the public’s consciousness of youth homelessness,” the National Homelessness Law Center’s executive director, Antonia Fasanelli, said in a letter announcing the award.

DiPierro and Mitchell, in a joint statement, pointed to the key reasons the newsrooms each invested months in the project: “The trauma of losing one’s home can disrupt a child’s life and education profoundly. Our team’s reporting shows both the strengths and shortcomings of the federal law designed to help a population whose struggles are rarely the subject of national headlines.”

An illustration that has several faces looking sad and contemplative. There are also desks and houses representing homeless students on the illustration, too.

Unhoused and Undercounted

Federal law requires that public schools assist homeless students to help break what could become an inescapable cycle of hardship. But many of the students who need that aid fall through the cracks.

Public Integrity often collaborates with other newsrooms, seeing that as an important way to expand the impact of investigative reporting, stretch resources in an era of tight funding for U.S. journalism and both share and benefit from expertise.

“This partnership is an excellent example of journalists serving their readers and listeners better by teaming up,” said Jamie Smith Hopkins, Public Integrity’s lead editor on the project. “We all learned from each other and produced stronger stories that reached more people.”

Eric Falquero, strategic partnerships editor at WAMU/DCist, added: “We are so proud of reporter Amanda Michelle Gomez — and the whole Unhoused & Undercounted team — for their recognition with the Stewart B. McKinney Award. Their partnership was essential in helping us discover that schools with the highest rates of homeless students in D.C. do not consistently receive federal money set aside to help such students.”

“Without the Center for Public Integrity’s commitment to this topic and collaboration, the Washington State Legislature would not have doubled the amount of money dedicated to student homelessness funding in 2023,” said Molly Harbarger, editor of The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless team. “Washington parents and policymakers would not know that homeless students face the most drastic forms of punishment in public schools of any demographic. Voters and lawmakers would not know that a Washington school district shows a way to help students facing some of the most difficult challenges graduate and find housing.”

She added, “Project Homeless is proud of the local and national impact we have made, and the conversations we have started that are poised to continue.”

The latest story in the series showed how Pennsylvania schools, approached for help by homeless families, suspected fraud and in some cases locked students out of class for weeks or even months.

The Unhoused and Undercounted series has also received the Institute for Nonprofit News’ large-division Breaking Barriers Award, a Dateline Award from the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and shortlist status for the Sigma Award recognizing the world’s best data journalism.

Public Integrity’s journalists have been recognized with numerous other honors in recent months, including national Edward R. Murrow awards for Overall Excellence and Feature Reporting, the Paul Tobenkin Award, a Peabody Award nomination, a National Headliner Award, an Excellence in Financial Journalism award, a National Association of Black Journalists Salute to Excellence Award, two finalist honors for the Shaufler Prize for reporting about underserved people, the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing’s “Best in Business” awards, the Gracie Awards honoring media produced by and for women, the Signal Awards recognizing the country’s best podcasts and two national Edward R. Murrow Awards, including one for overall excellence.

Founded in 1989, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Center for Public Integrity is one of the oldest nonprofit news organizations in the country and is dedicated to investigating systems and circumstances that contribute to inequality in the United States.

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