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October 22, 2020

Student Homelessness: How to Recognize an Invisible Problem

Educators are on the front lines when it comes to identifying signs that might indicate a student is without housing.

Classroom ManagementSocial-emotional learningInstructional Strategies
How many students in your school or district are homeless? The number of children and youth experiencing homeless has steadily increased over the past 15 years. There were more than 1.5 million homeless children during the 2017–18 school year, an increase of 15 percent from two years before. Although hard data has not yet emerged, we have only to see the news to know that that the number of homeless students has increased exponentially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike a learning disability or health condition, which require accommodations or modifications, classroom teachers are not often informed when a student qualifies for the Students in Transition (SIT) program (which, under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, protects homeless students' rights and mandates equal access to education).
In 2018, 12 percent of homeless students were in shelters, usually with one or both parents, 7 percent lived in hotels or motels, trailer parks or campgrounds, abandoned buildings, cars, or public spaces, and 7 percent had no shelter at all. Most homeless children (74 percent) fall into the shared housing category—meaning they are doubled up with relatives or friends because of economic hardship caused by divorce, job loss, or unmanageable debt.
Teachers, social workers, counselors, nurses, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and front office staff are often the first to notice red flags that signal something isn't right. Students who wear the same clothes every day, never have lunch money, consistently struggle with poor attendance, or exhibit behavioral issues in unstructured settings may be experiencing homelessness. They often do not have transcripts, immunization records, or birth certificates.
Although schools were not designed as a social service system, social services have become an essential part of what every school provides. It's up to the school community to try to even the playing field for all students.

The Invisible Subgroup

When families experience homelessness for the first time, they might have no idea where to turn for help. In cities and towns across the country, affordable housing is simply out of reach for families in transition. Education may not be a priority when families are dealing with incredibly stressful circumstances. It's challenging for a child who is experiencing homelessness to learn when they're focused on basic necessities like survival, food, and shelter. Many children have experienced stress from trauma that is unimaginable to teachers in an average classroom. Though children can be resilient, they do not escape unscathed. They may battle learning or behavioral difficulties or suffer from depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.
For these reasons, schools must train every staff member (teachers, administrators, school resource officers, and support personnel) to identify signs that might indicate a family is in trouble and to have resources to cope with crisis. Schools are required by law to have a liaison for homeless students and implement programs that improve enrollment, attendance, engagement, and academic success. But the quality of those programs depends on the knowledge and dedication of the people running them.
Some districts may designate a full or part-time employee to act as the liaison, while larger districts with more students in need may have an entire support team dedicated to homeless students and families. In districts with strong homeless education assistance programs, financed by federal grants, children and their families are better able to access the support they need. With the help of caring adults in a positive environment, students can overcome the trauma and succeed in school.

A District Responds

If you met Rita Bracamonte-Rodriguez for the first time, your first impression would be one of a well-dressed, confident young woman. An expert in her field, she has presented at conferences and been interviewed on radio shows. You would have no idea that the night before her interview for the job she currently holds, she spent the night in her car because she had no other place to sleep.
Rita was abandoned by her mother at age 6 and was shuffled off to live with relatives during the times her father couldn't care for her. As a young adult, skyrocketing medical bills and a sudden divorce left her financially ruined, and she was unable to afford a place to live. Now, she has a job as the Homeless Family Coordinator & Foster Care Liaison for the largest school district in Arizona, a role she has held for the past eight years. She uses her own life experience to teach others what they can do to help families in transition.
Under Rita's leadership, the Mesa Public Schools McKinney-Vento team provides services for over 1,100 homeless students in 86 schools. The team includes a social worker, who works specifically with homeless students. Education specialists meet with families new to shelters. A clerk does the shopping and delivery of clothing, hygiene items, school supplies, and bus passes.
The team also holds mandatory training with videos and webinars for district employees to identify potentially homeless students, so liaisons can reach out and offer assistance. During this pandemic, teachers are often the first to notice that something is not right. One teacher contacted Rita because a student had not been showing up for virtual classes. After being e-introduced to the mom, Rita learned that the family had just been evicted. She set up temporary housing for the family that same day.

Resources for Transition

Though all districts are required to identify and serve homeless students, many wait for parents to contact them and request access to services. That's not the way Rita does it. Her goal is to connect families to supports as quickly as possible by doing the following:
  • The district develops partnerships with area agencies and non-profits. Rita has built relationships with area shelters, crisis agencies that provide healthcare, behavioral health, and community education as well as local family housing agencies. She also works with non-profits, churches, and local businesses that donate school supplies, food, clothing, hygiene supplies, and holiday meals. They know and trust her, so if she makes a call during the night to refer a single mom with children for temporary housing, it's likely that help will arrive within hours.
  • The district collaborates with law enforcement officers who serve eviction notices. Rita provides brochures or handouts for officers to give to families who are evicted. She requests that all officers provide contact information for the local school district's homeless liaison to families and caregivers when children are evicted.
  • The district is creative in tracking down families. Because homeless families move around so much, their contact information is often outdated and many are unaware of available services. When Rita doesn't get a response from emails, voicemails, or text messages, she contacts every motel and hotel in the community by knocking on their doors. Some owners are willing to let her know if the families are registered there; others will pass along her business card to parents if they notice children wandering around the motel grounds during a school day. In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rita found 187 students that were not in the district's information system by visiting motels. In addition to detective work, Rita follows up on every referral from district employees, concerned parents, and community members.
  • The district provides resources to families. Thanks to community partners and grant funding, Rita's team gives out backpacks with healthy snacks for weekends and meets families outside the school building or at a convenient outdoor location nearby to give out requested supplies. Since the school district provides laptops for students, parents can also use them to access information about services available to them, such as links for COVID-19 eviction relief applications, school closure resources, school meal information, and how to get hotspots from the district.
  • The district shows compassion. The one thing parents who are homeless—mostly single mothers—fear most is losing their children. They might stay hidden in the shadows to avoid being identified as homeless rather than seeking help. Instead of blaming those suffering from homelessness for their circumstances, staff members are expected to treat all families with respect and recognize that every parent is being the best parent they know how to be. If parents are worried about where they will sleep at night or where the next meal will come from, they won't be focused on their children's school activities. Remember that the high school student who has his camera off during class might be living with his mom in their car, using a school-provided laptop and hotspot to keep up with remote learning. Can you imagine sitting outdoors under the Arizona sun, with daily temperatures reaching 110 degrees, trying to learn?

Going Above and Beyond

Funding of up to $100,000 per year is available to all districts and charter schools through ESSA grants like Title I, but only a quarter of school districts nationally apply for the McKinney Vento Homeless Education Assistance Grant. Now is the time to start planning for the next grant cycle. The dates are set by individual states and will vary; state departments of education have that information.
Funds are often used to pay for basic needs, but districts can get creative and expand opportunities. Covering the cost of registration for extra-curricular sports or clubs, musical instruments, tutoring, and credit-recovery courses are just a few ideas. If your district has a large number of unaccompanied teenagers attending high school, it's a worthwhile investment to hire a counselor dedicated to helping those students graduate.
As educators, it is beyond the scope of our work to try to break cycles of poverty. But we can support families in crisis. If they won't come to you, bring the programs to them. Listen to the families in your community, find out what they need, and try your best to meet those needs with an open heart and mind.
Note: Many thanks to Rita Bracamonte-Rodriguez, Mesa Public Schools, and Frank Migali, former State Director of Education for Homeless Children & Youth in Arizona, for sharing your expertise in Homeless Education Assistance.

Resources for Schools Around Homelessness

 Supporting Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness During the COVID-19 Outbreak: Questions to Consider 

References

National Center for Homeless Education, University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Federal Data Summary School Years 2015–16 through 2017–18, Education for Homeless Children and Youth.

National Center for Homeless Education, University of North Carolina, Greensboro. McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

U.S. Department of Education. Education for Homeless Children and Youths (EHCY) Program Profile.

Theodora Schiro has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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