In the middle of my freshman year of high school, I started my fourth episode of homelessness. My parents, five brothers, and I migrated back and forth from relatives’ living rooms, motels, and family shelters for more than two years. By the time I graduated from high school, I had moved a total of 14 times.
Data from the research nonprofit Child Trends show significant growth in youth homelessness in the last decade. Since my own high school graduation in 2006, youth homelessness in the United States has increased from approximately 815,000 youths nationwide to more than 1.3 million youths in the 2013-14 school year, the most recent year for which data are available.
Experiencing homelessness as a child has a direct effect on academic achievement. In 2014, America’s Promise Alliance reported that youths affected by homelessness are 87 percent more likely to drop out of high school and, as a result, are more likely to become homeless as adults. Additionally, homeless youths have higher levels of physical trauma and social isolation when compared with their housed peers, including those living in poverty.
Youth homelessness is a devastating epidemic with negative outcomes for students across all racial groups. However, African-American students are disproportionately affected. African-American children represent 48 percent of all children living in homeless shelters, even though African-Americans make up only 14 percent of American families with children, according to Child Trends. Concurrently, a 2013 study of homeless youths in San Francisco from the California Homeless Youth Project found that homeless African-American youths are less likely to self-identify as homeless compared with their white peers, and thus fail to receive aid and services to which they are entitled.
Although my parents notified my school district of when we became homeless, I was unaware that anyone knew of our circumstances. I never spoke to any teachers, counselors, or administrators about my living conditions, and no one ever asked me about them. Keeping such a secret was extremely difficult, but fear of being reported to the Department of Social Services kept me silent. I spent more energy lying about where I lived than studying, and as a result my grades dropped dramatically.
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, federal legislation enacted in 1987, defines as “homeless” any child who doesn’t have a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” That includes children from families who are doubling up in homes with relatives or other adults, as well as those living in shelters, motels, or cars. The McKinney-Vento Act established that homeless students have the right to transportation, free lunch, school supplies, tutoring, and school choice. In addition, students who are designated as homeless have the option of continuing to attend their current school or enrolling in the school closest to where they are currently residing.
Many teachers are often uninformed about homeless populations at their school."
In 2015, the McKinney-Vento Act was reauthorized under the Every Student Succeed Act and now requires school districts to increase outreach efforts for identifying homeless students and informing families of their legal rights. According to Education Department guidance on ESSA issued in June 2016, the amendment to the McKinney-Vento Act also requires school districts to disaggregate their student-achievement data and graduation rates to explicitly show the academic progress of their homeless youths. The improvements to McKinney-Vento are significant, but they are in vain if key stakeholders continue to be in the dark.
As a student experiencing homelessness, I wanted my teachers to attend to my social and emotional needs. But now, as a former high school and special education teacher myself, I understand why my teachers did not respond to my needs: They did not know. As a teacher, I never received training on the McKinney-Vento Act, nor was I informed that there were homeless youths at my school. The McKinney-Vento Act requires state coordinators to train district liaisons on identifying homeless students and implementing the policy. Each district liaison is then charged with disseminating the information to his or her respective school leaders and supporting the homeless youths identified. Teachers are not mandated to learn about the McKinney-Vento Act. Thus, many teachers are often uninformed about homeless populations at their school.
An overall lack of awareness of homelessness prevents homeless students from receiving support or even being identified. Principals and teachers should consider the following when creating a network of support for youths experiencing homelessness:
• Schoolwide training. The entire faculty should be trained and versed on the McKinney-Vento Act. Faculty members are in the best position to identify homeless youths and refer them to the district liaison for additional support.
• Student awareness. All students should know the McKinney-Vento Act’s definition of homelessness and that the rights of homeless students are guaranteed.
• Meaningful relationships. Teachers should foster meaningful relationships with students to affirm that students’ well-being matters.
• Targeting the most vulnerable populations. African-American youths are overrepresented in the foster-care system, the special education system, and the penal system. African-Americans’ distrust for institutions is warranted, and it needs to be considered when identifying and supporting African-American youths experiencing homelessness. The school is responsible forestablishing trust with both the student and his or her guardians.
While housing insecurity is a societal issue well beyond the scope of public schools, educators have an obligation to ensure that all students receive a high-quality education. The first step to providing educational equity for homeless students is to identify who they are, what they need, and what resources can be made available to them.
A version of this article appeared in the April 19, 2017 edition of Education Week as I Was Homeless And Invisible