School is back in session, and as is often the case, everyone is mourning the end of summer with a mix of nerves and excitement about the year ahead. Teachers prep classrooms and lesson plans as they brace for the arrival of new learners, and parents across the region sigh with relief knowing their children are returning to the structure of the school year.
Sadly, for as many as 3,000 students in the District of Columbia, that first day of school may have been overshadowed by the fact that their morning started at a homeless shelter or another unstable living situation. The impact of homelessness and housing insecurity on an emotional young person’s development is a topic this blog has covered in the past. This week, we especially want our readership to have a good handle on some of the services and supports available to these young people as we move into a new school year.
Homeless youth in the K-12 educational system are guaranteed certain services via the federal McKinney- Vento Act (part of No Child Left Behind). McKinney-Vento defines a child or youth as “homeless” if that child is:
- Living on the streets (or somewhere not meant for human residence- cars, parks, public places, abandoned buildings)
- Doubled up or couch surfing (sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship) or living in motels, hotels, or camping grounds due to lack of alternative adequate accommodations (including migratory children)
- Living in emergency or transitional shelter (including DC transitional housing)
- Are abandoned in hospitals or are awaiting foster care placement
- Unaccompanied homeless youth (those living in any of the above situations but without a parent or guardian)
- Simplified Enrollment Services: ensures that a school cannot turn the child away even if a parent or child does not have all the enrollment. Liaisons are mandated to provide assistance in tracking down necessary enrollment documentation.
- Consistent Educational Programming: provisions which allow students to stay in one school. Even if a family moves out of boundary in the city or is staying somewhere outside of the District, McKinney-Vento states the student can stay at their school of origin. Liaisons help coordinate with parents to make this happen (this often includes transportation vouchers).
- Access to Support Services: helps connect homeless children to services and supports that can help stabilize their educational experience. Liaisons are given information on additional resources and can be a good point of contact for a family looking for supports like shelter information, feeding programs, access to clothing and free school supplies that will help their child succeed in school.
The sad reality of McKinney-Vento is that students/families must identify as homeless to receive services via liaisons. Unfortunately, given the stigma associated with homelessness, many families choose not to inform schools or other organizations of their current situation of being unstably housed. With that in mind, below are a few simple strategies that you and your organization, neighborhood group, list serv etc. can use to make sure the information gets into the hands of those who need it most:
- Include a print out of the McKinney- Vento supports and information for the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center (where families can get referrals for shelter, housing, child care vouchers and TANF) in materials you send home with all students in your program
- Post information about services for homeless children and families somewhere parents or youth frequent, the National Center for Homeless Education has a great example of fliers geared toward parents and youth
- Keep hygiene supplies, bus passes or other important supplies on hand for students who need them, this can spark dialogue and trust for when students are in crisis
- Ask students for help. Youth can share information by word of mouth, using web-based social networking, and posting outreach materials where their peers will see them
- Talk with staff, colleagues, peers and students about being sensitive to different living situations or circumstances, empathy and awareness go a long way in starting an honest dialogue that helps connect families and kids to the services and supports they need to thrive
By working together, we can get D.C. youth the services they need.
Maggie Riden is the Executive Director of DC Alliance of Youth Advocates. In her former life, she managed the McKinney-Vento services and supports for the Massachusetts Department of Child and Family Services. Currently, Maggie is an appointed member on the Interagency Council on Homelessness and sits on the board of directors for the Mid Atlantic Network for Youth. Needless to say, Maggie would love to see a world where all youth have a home.