Student Well-Being

As Schools Weigh How to Use New Aid for Homeless Students, Finding Them Is Step One

By Evie Blad — April 20, 2021 10 min read
A Jefferson County School District student receives takes several bags with free meals delivered by a school bus in Fayette, Miss. As schools transitioned to remote learning during the pandemic, buses that once transported students now deliver meals and internet access. Those interruptions have made it more difficult to identify students at risk of homelessness.

Districts will soon have a fresh surge of federal aid to help support students experiencing homelessness, many of who have lost a key source of stability they find in schools as they face pandemic-related challenges presented by remote learning, quarantines, and strained family networks.

But the same pandemic-related circumstances that have created urgent new needs for homeless students have also made them more difficult to identify, district leaders told Education Week.

“Prior to the pandemic, school was the safest most stable place in the lives of children and youth who are homeless,” said Barbara Duffield, the executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, an organization that advocates for students experiencing homelessness. “It was the place for noticing what was going on in their lives and for educators to do something about it. It’s not like things are better. It’s that we can’t find them.”

We have a need to focus on this population that is less visible, more mobile, more disconnected, with greater needs than they’ve had in the past.

Seasoned educators can often recognize the signs that a student may be slipping into homelessness: Showing up to class repeatedly without supplies or a sudden change in bus ridership might indicate their family had to move quickly due to eviction or income loss.

After an unprecedented year for U.S. schools, many of those opportunities for face-to-face interactions have been hampered by changes in schoolwide routines. And, as the COVID-19 pandemic affected job stability across many sectors, many families who had previously rarely interacted with public support programs may not realize their children now qualify for federally mandated supports, district administrators said.

“We have a need to focus on this population that is less visible, more mobile, more disconnected, with greater needs than they’ve had in the past,” Duffield said.

The fresh challenges build on a problem that was growing well before COVID-19 caused mass school closures. A record 1.5 million students were identified as homeless in 2017-18, according to the most recent federal data. And school leaders say that number has certainly grown in the time since.

The challenge of identifying those students presents great urgency for school districts’ homelessness liaisons. They must also prepare to use new federal funds efficiently in the long term, even as they plan for a potential wave of newly homeless students when federal officials quit renewing a moratorium on housing evictions. That order, which is currently set to expire June 30, has been extended several times, and educators don’t know how to predict the volume of upheaval in their communities when months of unpaid rent come due for families in their communities.

“I have a knot in my stomach over what is going to happen when all of this lifts. I’m very worried,” said Heather Anderson, the transitional student services coordinator for the Paducah, Ky., school district. “We are building the plane in the air.”

Federal aid to support homeless students

Recognizing those challenges, Congress required a significant portion of K-12 aid provided through the American Rescue Plan to support the identification, enrollment, and school participation of children and youth experiencing homelessness. The $800 million included for those purposes is eight times what schools get this year through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Program, the federal program that helps schools meet the needs of homeless students that may create hurdles to success in school.

As they await federal guidance on how to spend the new aid, McKinney-Vento coordinators around the country have pushed officials for maximum flexibility in how states can distribute the funds and how schools can use them. They’d like greater freedom to collaborate with community organizations in meeting students’ needs. And they’ve also pushed other federal agencies to target fresh relief aid—like funds for emergency housing assistance—in ways that can provide the most benefit to homeless students.

And they’ve got some powerful allies.

A bipartisan group of senators wrote to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona April 9, encouraging flexible use of the new funds “beyond what is typically allowed” under the existing federal homeless education program.

Schools should be encouraged to prioritize “wraparound services” that help meet students’ emotional, behavioral, and family needs that may affect their ability to learn, said the letter. Signers included Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, and Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, who both led efforts to target the relief aid; Washington Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat and chair of the Senate education committee; and Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., its ranking member.

New uses for new funds

In a typical year, qualifying schools spend federal funds on items like tutoring, field trip fees, and transportation to keep students in the same school, even if their family moves outside of its boundaries. The most-flexible-use category allows liaisons to address practical barriers to student attendance, like a need for new shoes or a coat to walk to school in cold weather.

Casey Gordon, the homeless services coordinator for a cluster of districts around Grand Rapids, Mich., once bought a student a flatiron after she lost it in a sudden move and repeatedly missed school because she was embarassed by her unstyled hair.

“We went to Walgreens and bought her one, and she came to school every day after that,” Gordon said.

Student liaisons also frequently buy prepaid phones for unaccompanied teens so they can stay connected to school and participate in activities. They also use funds to extend hours of tutoring services to fit the needs of highly mobile families, and they install washing machines in schools to give students a place to do laundry.

Gordon has already adapted her approach during the pandemic. She’s bought wireless hotspots and car chargers for computers to allow students to do homework in parking lots.

Anderson, in Paducah, bought a van to deliver tablets and meals to unhoused students and to distribute donated supplies. The van contains “everything you need to be a human being,” she said, adding that giving a child a bottle of lotion or a pair of shoes can help maintain a personal connection when they aren’t learning in-person.

The Paducah, Ky., school district uses a special van to distribute meals and supplies to students experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Britney Gibson, the student services coordinator for Johnston County schools in North Carolina, has used community contributions to help cover things she might not be able to pay for with federal funds. The district uses an app that allows community members to meet the needs of anonymous students and their families by ordering items via Amazon.com. Those items could be as small as laundry detergent and paper towels and as large as a mattress, Gibson said.

As she awaits word on how new federal funds can be used, Gibson hopes for maximum flexibility to pay for things that might not seem immediately related to education. For one family, a simple car repair helped a young mother get her children to school, she said. But that’s not an allowed use of current funding, and it’s not something that can be bought on Amazon.

“There are some things I just can’t figure out how to pay for,” Gibson said.

Ben Ruch, the homeless liaison for Polk County schools in Bartow, Fla., says he wants to focus the new funding on expanding current mental health and academic supports for students, rather than creating new programs. He wants to expand tutoring services, offering more remote options and new time slots for students who may work part-time jobs during typical hours. That’s particularly important after a year when educators are concerned many students, homeless or not, may not have had time to cover all of the course material for their grade level, he said.

Ruch, who formerly managed a family housing shelter, said he feels urgency in keeping students on track academically.

“The parents who I had the most difficult time helping were those who hadn’t graduated from high school,” he said. “I see our program as one of the best chances of helping those students end that cycle of homelessness.”

That’s why coordinators around the country want to move quickly to identify students so that they can help them participate in summer learning programs, even as they chart longer-term uses for new funds during the next academic year.

A debate about using funds for housing

What’s less clear, and more debated among homeless liaisons, is whether schools can or should use the new funding to help pay for housing itself.

Gibson, in North Carolina, would like the flexibility to cover the occasional emergency hotel voucher for families in crisis. Gordon, in Grand Rapids, said the task of helping families find and secure housing in a crowded rental market is beyond the capabilities of school employees, but she might want the flexibility to direct some funds to existing community organizations that are better equipped to do so.

Advocates for low-income students say that schools could stretch their dollars further by creating programs like school-based family resource centers that connect families to outside agencies with more housing expertise.

They point to other relief aid, provided to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as a more effective way to address the need for housing itself. In a March 30 letter, a group of advocacy organizations urged HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge to ensure her agency doesn’t tie too many strings to those funds so that they can more easily reach children at risk of homelessness.

At issue: HUD typically uses a narrower definition of homelessness than the Education Department, which includes children who are staying in motels, shelters, or “doubled up” in friends’ homes, sleeping on couches as a make-do fix while their parents search for housing.

The American Rescue Plan allows HUD to distribute new housing aid under the definitions used by other federal agencies, including the Education Department, potentially opening up access to students who may have otherwise gone without. Regulations for how that funding should be spent should encourage housing organizations to cooperate with school districts to ensure they meet families’ needs effectively, the letter to Fudge said.

These families “face some of the greatest barriers to stability, including the effects of intergenerational poverty, and are at high risk of COVID-19 transmission and illness, yet they are left with few resources and options to obtain and maintain housing, and achieve economic prosperity and well-being,” it said.

Finding students can be difficult

That broad definition of homelessness is part of the reason some families don’t enroll their children in supportive services. They might not realize they qualify.

“A lot of our families in Johnston County think that homelessness means you are sleeping under a bridge,” Gibson said.

Even as federal data showed the number of homeless students hit a record high, advocates said they knew there were many more who hadn’t been identified. During the pandemic, schools around the country have reported lower numbers of qualifying students. SchoolHouse Connection estimates about 1 in 4 students experiencing homelessness have fallen off of their district’s radar during the upheaval.

Gibson has hung signs in laundromats and local businesses to make families aware of her services. Ruch, in Florida, made a video for families and educators to explain how his programs work and who qualifies.

Melinda Dyer, who coordinates homeless student services for Washington state, said districts will have more success both identifying and supporting homeless students if they use new aid to hire social workers and staff. She hopes that the funds can also be used in part to help beef up state and interdistrict efforts to track and support students as their families move.

The stakes are high for children and for their schools, said Duffield, of SchoolHouse Connection. She hopes that, if schools find effective ways to spend the new aid, it can help make the case for a more permanent funding increase in future federal budgets.

“This is unprecedented opportunity to show what investment can do and to show what this program can look like in the future,” Duffield said. “As much work as it took for advocacy, implementation is going to take even more work.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 2021 edition of Education Week as As Schools Weigh How to Use New Aid for Homeless Students, Finding Them Is Step One

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