The New Face of Homelessness
By Melissa Brandt
You know that moment when you’re at a party or a social gathering and a person you barely know asks, “So, what do you do?” I dread that moment. Not because I’m embarrassed by what I do. I love my job. I love the people, students, and families with whom I work. Their troubles are my troubles. Their successes are my successes.
“I’m the Homeless Liaison for Rochester Public Schools,” I say with trepidation. I am nervous because there are certain words, I have found, that immediately strike a social-emotional nerve, and the word “homeless” generally strikes the mother of all emotional nerves. After I tell the party-goer what I do, I wait for one of three standard, social responses: pity, reverence, disdain. Most frequently, I see a look of pity cross the face of the person, a feeling of sadness for families in a homeless situation. We spend a little time chatting about statistics and bemoaning the state of the world, and the person moves on. Sometimes I see a look of reverence. It’s the I-would-never-in-a-million-years-want-your-job look. There’s a curiosity to this response. The person expressing reverence is usually interested in what the day-to-day challenges of the families and students. They want to know what homelessness looks like. I usually provide a few anecdotes, we spend a little time chatting about statistics and bemoaning the state of the world and the person moves on.
Both the pity and reverence are understandable, because, without getting into the nuts and bolts of the work, a natural compassion for our fellow man takes over. The disdain or sour-faced response is more of a mystery to me. I assume that the person is imagining some negative encounter they may or may not have had with someone experiencing a lack of housing. Generally, this person moves along pretty quickly. All three responses are connected to a lack of understanding about the current state of homelessness.
The questions people ask to follow up confirms my assumption of how little the general population understands homelessness. They ask, “Do people come from out of state to get benefits in Minnesota?” They ask, “Are the homeless mostly illegal immigrants?” They ask, “Homeless students? You mean we have homeless kids in Rochester?” My answers are no, no, and yes, in that order.
Honestly, most of the time it feels like I’m shoveling sand. I’m able to enlighten a few people, but most of the sand falls off the sides of the shovel. I need a bigger shovel. I need an army of people who understand what homelessness is and what it looks like, and together we can educate the rest of the community. So, here I am, reaching out to people who I know can make a difference. You are my bigger shovel. Let’s discuss the basics. Let’s answer the questions you are afraid toask. Let’s talk about what all this has to do with a teacher’s job in the classroom. Let’s create change.
Every public school district in the nation is required to have a person designated to be the homeless liaison, but often I will call schools and ask for the liaison only to be met with silence or “Homeless liaison? I don’t know who our homeless liaison is.” More and more, public schools are becoming aware of the legal mandate, but it’s an uphill battle. I have been in the position of homeless liaison from Rochester Public Schools for only about four years, and I have a lot left to learn, so I do understand when smaller schools are not sure how to address and fulfill the mandate, but what scares me is that the law has existed in one form or another since 1987. If it has taken us this long to come this far, how much longer will it take to truly serve all students in the way the law is intended?
In 1987, the law enacted to assist homeless students was called the McKinney Legislation. The long and short of the law said that school districts were required to provide access to a free and appropriate public education to students experiencing homelessness. Back in 1987, if a student didn’t have an address or something to prove they were a resident, they were often denied access to school for long periods of time. Since then, the law has been amended and improved several times, each time providing additional services to students. In the early 1990s, significant language was added to the law that required school districts to remove barriers that might be standing in the way of a homeless student from attending school and staying in school. The College of Education at William and Mary helps explain the language:
Congress amended the McKinney Act and expressed an intolerance of any barrier that prohibited the enrollment of homeless children and youth. Furthermore, Congress acknowledged that the true challenge was not simply to enroll homeless children, but to promote their academic success in public school.
With the additional changes in the law, states were charged with taking a larger role in the well-being of homeless students, and required to examine any current policies that might stand in the way of academic success among students experiencing homelessness. The law was reauthorized again in 2001, resulting in “additional supports being incorporated.”
Each time the law is reauthorized changes have to be made at the local level in order to make sure school districts are serving students in the way the legislation intends. I’m not sure about you, but I struggle with understanding the law unless it’s sung to me “Schoolhouse Rock” style. There’s no chance I’m going to be able to read and understand the intent of the law in its legal form. Thankfully, there are several national agencies working to help school districts sort out what the changes mean. One such agency is the National Center for Homeless Education or the NCHE. The NCHE is the U.S. Department of Education’s technical assistance and information center in the area of homeless education. NCHE is an invaluable resource for the liaisons who face the day-to-day questions and challenges of assisting homeless children and youth, but it can also be used by teachers and staff who might have questions and want to do a little more research on their own. Regardless of whether a person gets information on the law from NCHE or from another resource, what becomes evident is that each reauthorization of the McKinney-Vento Law has resulted in profound change and help for homeless and highly mobile students.
Bringing the Law Home
From the public school perspective, the McKinney-Vento Act defines homeless children as those who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate night-time residence. Students who meet this definition might be living in one of the following circumstances:
• Share housing (doubled up) of others due to loss of housing or economic hardship
• Living in motels/hotels, trailer parks, camp grounds due to lack of alternatives
• Living in emergency, transitional shelters, or transitional housing
• Abandoned in hospitals
• Awaiting foster care placement
• Living in public or private places not designed for humans to live
• Living in cars, parks, or substandard housing
• Migratory children in above circumstances.
(McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 2001—Title X, Part C)
Unaccompanied youth or youth not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian are also covered under the McKinney Vento Act. This includes young people who have run away from home, been thrown out of their homes, or abandoned by parents or guardians. The definitions demonstrated in the law—like lacking fixed, regular, and adequate housing—are often different than what we’ve been trained as a society to understand or imagine homelessness to be. Typically, when we imagine homelessness, we see a middle-aged man, maybe a veteran, sitting on the side of the road, holding a sign, and asking for money, but if we consider statistical information, homelessness looks much different.
The best resource for statistical information on homelessness in Minnesota is the Wilder Study. Every three years Wilder Research reaches out to shelters and transitional housing providers in Minnesota and surveys families and individuals experiencing homelessness. The most recent study was completed in October of 2012. Wilder’s research helps address some of those hard to answer questions. For example, when people ask me about families moving from out of state for benefits, Wilder’s study specifies:
Most of Minnesota’s homeless adults have a connection to Minnesota. Half lived in Minnesota most or all of the time growing up (until age 16). More than 8 in 10 have lived in Minnesota for at least two years, or lived in Minnesota before. Three-quarters had their last regular or permanent housing in the state. (Homelessness in Minnesota 15)
In addition, the 2012 study also looks at the age of homeless families and individuals, and what stands out most is, of the 10, 214 people identified for the study, around 46% were 21 years of age or younger. So why, when imagining homelessness, do we default to the middle-aged male? The most likely and obvious reason is because these are the homeless we often see in public situations. Young people and young families experiencing homelessness generally seek the help of shelters and transitional living programs or seek shelter in the houses and apartments of friends, often referred to as “couch surfing,” rather than living in unsheltered situations.
In some ways the Wilder Study still makes it difficult for the average person to get a handle on how homelessness is reflected in his or her own community, so let’s take a look at numbers a little closer to home. In 2007-08, Rochester Public Schools identified 112 students as “in transition” (the phrase is used for homeless and highly mobile students for multiple reasons, but the biggest reason is to eliminate the stigma and shame that the word homeless carries). In the 2012-2013 school year RPS had more than 350 students who were in transition. In four years, our numbers tripled. How did Rochester Public Schools suddenly have three times more homeless students? In some ways, we didn’t. A portion of the growth we experienced was due to better outreach and improved identification of the homeless that were already here. Not all of our increase can be attributed to better outreach, though. Rochester, like all communities across the United States, saw a growth in homelessness due to the recent recession, lack of living wage jobs, and scarcity of affordable housing—issues that won’t be going away any time soon.
What We Do To Help
All of the statistical information and data sounds fairly bleak, but there is a bright spot. School districts and teachers do have a few resources to help. To meet the obligations of the federal law, schools can offer families and students experiencing homelessness with the following services:
• Immediate enrollment
• Transportation to enrollment and registration appointments
• Transportation to the child’s school of origin
• Assistance with school supplies
• Scholarships for school activities
• Referrals to community resources that may include medical assistance, food, and housing.
• Free breakfast and lunch at school
• Access to a school social worker
(McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 2001—Title X, Part C)
In addition to these requirements, school districts also have an opportunity to expand on assistances through community partnerships. For example, Rochester Public Schools has partnered with Channel One Food Shelf and local faith communities to provide extra backpacks of food on the weekends to students in need. This service, called “Food for Friends,” helps struggling families get through the days when they might otherwise go hungry. Similar partnerships have been created with second-hand clothing shops and other organizations. When using the law for a springboard, amazing supports rise up within the community, and in return, the community actively participates with initiatives happening within school systems.
It Takes a Village
Only so much can be done by the local homeless liaison and community partners. Principals, teachers, and staff members are an invaluable resource and the first line of defense when working to assist homeless students and keep them in school. Oftentimes, I witness situations in which a teacher may inadvertently create barriers for homeless students. These barriers might include assignments or projects that require students and families to buy additional school supplies. Recently my son had to build a model replica of the Parthenon for one of his class assignments. While it was a wonderful project and a lot of fun for my son, I couldn’t help but wonder if students who might be living in less than optimal housing situations were offered an alternative or were offered additional supplies and time in school to complete the project. Another sad is example of an inadvertent barrier is asking students to bring treats. I recently worked with a fourth grader who didn’t want to go to school because he didn’t have a juice box and treat to bring to the classroom’s “movie day.” What might seem like a reward for the class, can sometimes create an emotional and financial barrier for kids who are trying their hardest just to fit in. I’m not suggesting to teacher to stop rewarding students, I’m just hoping alternative approaches will be considered for students who are unable to fully participate.
To eliminate the chance of creating a barrier instead of removing one, Minneapolis Public Schools has created a list of a few helpful tips for teachers when working with homeless and highly mobile students:
• Welcome students and give them a sense of belonging
• Routinely review student expectations and classroom rules
• Keep student living situation confidential
• Assign students a buddy to show them around and foster peer relationships
• Problem-solve with the students ways to complete homework and provide with supplies if necessary
• Provide a place for students to keep their possessions safe
• Be aware of basic needs like clothing, food, health, and hygiene, and work with the in transition coordinator or your school social worker to help meet these needs
• Ensure equal access to educations services like field trips and after-school activities
• Communicate with the health office about illnesses that may be related to stress and trauma
• Be in touch with the school social worker about resources to address the social emotional issues of students
The New Face – A Child’s Face
There is no single cause of homelessness, and I know it is not within my power to solve the problem on my own. Homelessness is larger than all of us, and even acquiring a bigger shovel will not end the misconceptions with which homeless families are confronted, but I have to try. We have to try.
Recently, I had a student in my office who had been thrown out of his home. He was under the age of 18, so there were no shelter options available to him in Rochester. None. There were significant barriers to him obtaining a state I.D. card and copy of his birth certificate—even though he was an American citizen—so finding a job was practically impossible. Not to mention, most jobs require a bank account for direct deposit, and bank accounts require a minimum deposit, which this young man did not have. None of it mattered, though, because without state identification, he couldn’t get through most human resource requirements. He felt trapped. No job, no home, no one to rely on. His choices were few: sell drugs, steal, sell his body. After a couple of months of research and letter writing, we were able to get a copy of his birth certificate, but in some ways I knew I had already lost him. He was forced to turn to extreme measures to survive. The social safety net failed this kid.
For homeless families with children, the system is not much better. I once worked with a family who lived for several months in a low-rent hotel in town. Often families are forced to stay in hotels because local housing and rental regulations require that occupants have a bedroom for every two family members. For example, a family with three children would need to look for apartments with three or more bedrooms, which typically run in excess of $800 or $900 in Rochester. A hotel room in a low-budget hotel will run $600-$700 with no utility payments on top of the rent, and, because of lack of affordable housing options, landlords can afford to be very picky. If a rental applicant has late payments or other issues on their credit when a landlord does credit check, forget it. Families are stuck in the hotel. In this particular family, mom worked at a retail store on the north end of town, and most nights had to work later than 9 p.m., which is when the outer-most city bus routes stop making rounds. This mom had to pay almost $25 for a taxi to get home at the end of the night, which totaled about three hours of her paycheck for the day. To help with childcare, the family allowed another two people to stay in the hotel room with them. There were seven people living in the hotel room. The struggle was endless.
These are the situations in which our children are living. Where does the homeless teen do his homework? Where does the child in an overcrowded hotel room find the quiet space to concentrate and do his or her mandatory 30 minutes of reading each night? How do parents save enough money to get out of the cycle of poverty and find a place of their own?
Our mission within Rochester Public Schools is to inspire, challenge, and empower all students with the knowledge and skills required to reach their full potential, to contribute to future generations, and to become involved members of a global community. All students. All students includes students experiencing homelessness. Hopefully with the knowledge I’ve shared in this article, educators have added a couple tools to their toolboxes and will assist in removing barriers for homeless students. In return, I hope I’ve gained a bigger shovel for my toolbox, and a partner to educate that party-goer who might not know the social-emotional nerve he or she has touched by asking the simple question, “So, what do you do?”
History of the McKinney Act: William & Mary School of Education, Project HOPE – Virginia. http://education.wm.edu/centers/home/resources/mckinneyact/index.php
Homelessness in Minnesota: Findings from the 2012 statewide homeless study, Wilder Research 2012.
McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 2001—Title X, Part C, Section 725