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 Coulet Johnson, center, and other then-homeless children watch a performance by circus clowns in 2009 at a Dallas library. - 

On Katie Jeffery’s 17th birthday, her mother kicked her out of the house. She then spent four months living on the streets of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Jeffery stayed in hotels, friends’ places, cars, even a shed for a couple of weeks. All the while, she worked to finish up her final year of high school.

“Worst part is, nobody really noticed that I was homeless,” Jeffery says. “Because I showed up every day to school and did what I had to do.”

The number of students experiencing homelessness in the U.S. has increased 85 percent since before the recession, according to Department of Education data. But the resources available to help them have remained flat.

States with small populations, like Wyoming, have seen some of the biggest increases in homeless students, but have the fewest resources. In Cheyenne, there are shelters for adults living on the streets, but nothing for unaccompanied minors like Jeffery.   

“If I was a 35-year-old ex-con, there’s housing, there’s jobs. There’s no problem,” Jeffery says. “I’m a 17-year-old female who’s trying to finish high school, and I was given a box of food and a blanket and told to stay out of trouble.”

Kids who crash temporarily with friends or in hotels account for the majority of the country’s 1.3 million homeless students. But the Department of Housing and Urban Development only counts people sleeping on the streets or in shelters as homeless. 

“Eighty percent of the children who are identified by public schools are not considered homeless by HUD, and are not eligible for some of the critical services they need to get back on their feet,” says Barbara Duffield, policy and programs director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

That’s why lawmakers have introduced a bill that would amend HUD’s definition to include the rest of these children. Opponents say the change could mean fewer HUD services for homeless adults. But Duffield says making students a priority makes sense long-term.

“By not paying attention to the urgency of child development now, we’re actually creating a system where adult homelessness is being perpetuated,” Duffield says.

Sponsors of the Homeless Children and Youth Act say they hope to see their legislation taken up by Congress this year.