Equity & Diversity

School Districts Scramble to Help Homeless Students

By Mary Ann Zehr — February 03, 2010 7 min read
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As job losses and home foreclosures have pushed families into homelessness, school districts are struggling to cope with an increasing number of students with no permanent home.

Reflecting the impact of the recession that officially began in December 2007, half the states collectively reported a 50 percent increase in homeless students by the 2008-09 school year, two Washington-based groups say.

The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, a membership organization of educators and others, and First Focus, an advocacy group, released the findings in a policy brief last week.

Data were not available for all states, the brief says, but 26 provided information on the numbers of homeless students for the 2006-07 to 2008-09 school years. The total number of homeless students over that period was 222,493.

California saw a 62 percent rise over that time period, for example, while New Mexico reported a 91 percent increase.

The federal McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth program, part of the No Child Left Behind Act, requires that school districts designate a “homeless liaison” to coordinate services and provide transportation to allow such students to stay in their original schools. The law allows districts to use Title I money for homeless students.

But the effects of the economic recession have exacerbated the challenge for districts to meet their obligations to students who are homeless, educators and advocates say. The extent of school districts’ aid to homeless children varies widely, they note.

“Unfortunately, the influx of homeless students—combined with state and local budget cuts—has pushed school systems to the brink,” the policy brief says.

Federal Requirements

All districts must comply with the McKinney-Vento requirements, but only 9 percent receive money authorized under it, according to Phillip Lovell, the vice president for education, housing, and youth policy for First Focus. The money is distributed according to a formula to states, which in turn pay it out as competitive grants. The fraction of districts that receive the money, however, identify more than half of schoolchildren who are homeless, he said.

Edith Nunez, right, plays basketball with sons Jacob, 1, and Sage outside the Primavera Foundation Greyhound Family Shelter, where the family is now living.

“When school districts have the capacity to identify these kids, they do a much better job of it,” Mr. Lovell said. “Homeless kids don’t go to a school wearing a T-shirt that says, ‘Hi, I’m homeless.’ ”

Federal law defines as homeless any child who doesn’t have a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence,” which includes children from families who are doubling up in homes with relatives or friends, as well as those living in shelters, motels, or cars.

Congress has authorized $60 million to $65 million through the McKinney-Vento program for each of the last three years. In addition, the federal government provided $70 million in extra McKinney-Vento funding in fiscal 2009 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, known as the stimulus bill.

The overarching challenge for districts is paying for transportation, said Barbara Duffield, the policy director of the NAEHCY, whose members include liaisons for homeless students.

“Some school districts are looking more at what is cheaper, as opposed to what’s going to keep this child in a stable school environment,” she said.

Sage Riley eats breakfast at the Primavera Foundation Greyhound Family Shelter before heading to school on a private van provided by the Ampitheater district.

While some districts are struggling to meet the requirements of the law, others have hired full-time liaisons for years and provide a wide range of services, from backpacks with school supplies to after-school tutoring.

John McLaughlin, the federal coordinator for education for homeless children and youth programs for the U.S. Department of Education, said the Albuquerque, N.M., and St. Paul, Minn., school districts have especially well-managed services for homeless children. Those districts, he noted, set aside a substantial amount of money for homeless children from Title I funding for disadvantaged students.

Last school year, the Albuquerque district spent $2.3 million in Title I money to serve 5,000 homeless children, said Helen Fox, the longtime liaison for that district, which has 89,000 students. Ms. Fox has sought and received donations from businesses and organizations, such as $15,000 from a local realtors’ association to pay for winter coats and $5,000 worth of cereal from General Mills.

Seeking Private Help

Deborah C. Boone, who has been a liaison for the 23,200-student Richland County School District One in Columbia, S.C., for 15 years, seeks grants from private donors for assistance the federal money can’t be used for, such as paying a hotel bill for a few nights for a family that has been evicted. The district has served 525 homeless students so far this school year, she said, and is using some of its federal stimulus money for the homeless to create mini-libraries at local shelters.

The Bonner-Springs-Edwardsville Unified School District in Bonner Springs, Kan., hasn’t gotten any McKinney-Vento money. But 60 of the school system’s 2,500 children have been identified as homeless this school year, up from none just a couple of years ago.

Superintendent Robert Van Maren recently warned the school board that the cost to transport homeless children so that they don’t have to change schools is likely to be about $16,000 this school year. Such costs last school year were $2,200. Mr. Van Maren said the increased count of homeless students in his district is likely a result both of the recession and a growing awareness among parents and educators of the district’s obligations under the McKinney-Vento provisions.

In the District of Columbia, money to transport homeless students ran dry, and the distribution of tokens to homeless families for children to ride public buses to their original schools came to a halt in December.

Keisha R. Valentine, a family case manager and youth advocate for the Washington-based Community of Hope, which provides both temporary and subsidized permanent housing, said when she went to the District of Columbia’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education at that time to pick up the monthly allotment of tokens for her homeless clients, she was told the money for tokens had run out. Last month, the office still didn’t have tokens, so she got a limited supply from another government source.

Chad Colby, a spokesman for that office, said in an e-mail that “there were some budget questions around grant monies and the availability of those funds, but everything has been resolved.” The office will be handing out tokens and subway farecards for homeless schoolchildren again this month, he said.

In many communities, a district’s efforts to comply with the federal government’s transportation mandate is the most visible kind of aid for homeless families.

Sage Riley, 7, attends 2nd grade at Keeling Elementary School. His seven-member family has been homeless since August.

Edletha Nuñez, who lives with her husband and five children in Tucson, Ariz., is grateful that her three school-age children didn’t have to change schools after they became homeless in August. The family of seven has lived in two different shelters and a motel since then.

The Amphitheater district, where the children enrolled at the start of the school year, provides public-bus passes and pays for a private van so the children can travel from a shelter for homeless families to their schools across the city each day. The district hasn’t received regular McKinney-Vento money for the past few years, but got a one-time allotment of $35,000 this school year as part of the stimulus package.

Tom Collins, the district’s director of state and federal intervention programs, said the school system is transporting about 120 of its 350 homeless children with private transportation at a cost of $50,000 a month.

Several moves ago, in another state, Edletha and Robert Nuñez, had jobs and a place to live. But last April, the family moved in with Ms. Nuñez’s sister in Tucson.

After a disagreement, the family ended up without housing. The Nuñez couple and the children, who have the last name of Riley, stayed in a shelter run by the Salvation Army. Recently, the Primavera Foundation, a nonprofit group, has put them up in a motel that has been converted to a shelter.

Ms. Nuñez and her husband, who have high school diplomas, say they value education. The couple doesn’t own a car, so Ms. Nuñez is grateful for the transportation the district has provided for her children.

“I didn’t want them to move from school to school,” she said, “because we didn’t know where we would end up.”

Last fall, Mr. Nuñez landed an $8-an-hour job in photo processing at a pharmacy. The family has applied for a three-bedroom duplex to rent.

Photojournalist James Gregg contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the February 03, 2010 edition of Education Week as Districts Scramble to Address Increase in Homeless Pupils

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