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Meeting the Needs of Homeless Youth: Public Schools Are Doing What Government Won’t Do Directly

Lack of government support for families in need is forcing public schools to find ways to support homeless students.

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Dr. Art McCoy, superintendent of schools in Jennings, Missouri, is a humble man. But when he speaks of his school district as “a lighthouse for informed practices that respond to the needs of homeless and low-income kids,” his pride is obvious.

As a leader of the movement pushing public schools to address the overlapping emotional and material needs of impoverished students, Jennings is a model — stepping in to provide food, shelter, health care and consolation to students who need it. Not surprisingly, school districts throughout the US are looking to Jennings for inspiration, especially since federal and state governments have done very little to assist this population.

Jennings is adjacent to Ferguson, the small city that was catapulted to prominence in August 2014 after police murdered 18-year-old Michael Brown. Each of Jennings’ eight public schools — with an enrollment of 2,600 students, most of them poor and 160 of them homeless — have “comfort rooms”: private spaces where students can meet with counselors and address the obstacles they’re facing.

“The biggest issues for our students are domestic violence and the death of a loved one,” McCoy states. “About 2,000 of our 2,600 enrolled students see school-based therapists each academic year to address the multiple traumas in their lives.”

This alone would be a staggering achievement, but Jennings schools do far more: They distribute more than 8,000 pounds of free food every two weeks, and no-cost washers and dryers are available for student to use 13 hours a day. Why? Because having clean clothes is known to boost school attendance, McCoy says, something that is particularly important for folks whose electricity has been shut off or who simply don’t have the money to use commercial laundromats. What’s more, three Jennings schools have full-service health centers on-site where dental, optical, gynecological and medical care are available.

It’s an impressive array, but the district considers its biggest achievement to be Hope House, a 4,000-square-foot residence that is home to seven children who would otherwise be homeless. “Hope House opened in November 2015,” McCoy told Truthout. “The first year, it was run in partnership with the Missouri Baptist Children’s Home and served four girls who had been abused.” A year later, the district teamed up with the state division of Family Services and opened the House to both boys and girls, elementary through high school age.

“The current batch of residents are either estranged from their parents or facing other situations of duress,” McCoy explains. “In one case, the mom’s boyfriend tried to kill her and she is now trying to get to a safe space.”

Such circumstances, he continues, sparked the need for innovation and, since vacant properties were essentially there for the taking, Jennings teachers and administrators wondered if they could establish a shelter for students. “There are a large number of vacant buildings throughout the Midwest that could be used to shelter kids who’ve fallen through the cracks,” McCoy tells me. “There are at least 800 in Jennings County alone. When corporations and businesses leave the area, people move away and walk away from homes that can’t be sold. In some places mayors are simply giving these properties to community groups in exchange for rehabbing them.”

In the case of Hope House, it cost the district about $60,000 to renovate the dwelling. Local stores then donated beds, couches and other necessary items and a house parent — a woman with 30 years of experience as a foster mom — was hired to cook and oversee day-to-day operations.

Hope House has been so successful that the district is presently renovating a second home; this one will be reserved for homeless families and is expected to open in early 2018. McCoy sounds pleased by this. Nevertheless, he emphasizes that he is worried that, if enacted, the Trump administration’s 2018 budget will put the project on tenuous footing. “We love being a community service agency,” McCoy says, “and are outraged by the president’s budget. Right after the election, in January 2017 we were notified that there would be federal cuts. The state of Missouri has agreed to continue our funding for one more year, and I’ve been able to raise $1.2 million in donations, but it is unfeasible to think we can do this every year. You can’t sustain public education this way.”

Schools Struggle to Fill a Gaping Void

Dr. Mark Naison, professor of African and African American Studies at Fordham University and a mentor to many aspiring educators, says that federal policy “has forced schools to make up for the vacuum that government has left.”

That vacuum, says Barbara Duffield, founder and executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a Washington, DC-based advocacy organization that serves as a liaison between school districts, community activists, state education agencies and youth, is the direct result of policies promulgated by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

“HUD policy has, since 2002, prioritized single people at the expense of families and young people,” she says. “Fifteen years ago, the federal government decided to focus on single adults living on the streets.” Because it is less common to see whole families in doorways, under bridges, or camped out in train stations — they tend to stay with friends or family, or settle into temporary shelters or hotels — “HUD has paid less attention to them and left school districts to come up with solutions on their own.”

Ironically, she continues, compulsory education laws are on the books in all 50 states, making schools “the sole universal organization to touch every child’s life.” This has pushed the onus of service provision onto educators, since teachers and administrators know that children can’t learn if they’re hungry, sick, tired or distracted.

The American Psychological Association notes that “chronic stress adversely impacts concentration and memory which impacts the ability to learn.” Other issues, including anxiety, depression, increased impulsivity and low self-esteem also correlate with both deep poverty and homelessness. So do anemia, asthma, learning disabilities and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Experts estimate that between 1.3 million and 1.6 million kids enrolled in public schools currently lack a permanent address. Although the exact number is impossible to pin down — folks living doubled up with friends and family don’t always identify as homeless — this accounts for nearly 2 percent of public school enrollment. Many are LGBTQ, with approximately 110,000 a year becoming undomiciled after coming out to their families. Most homeless youth, however, live with a parent or other relative. That said, at least 36,000 are completely on their own due to parental incarceration, alcohol or drug abuse, death or deportation.

Other Schools Rising to the Challenge

East High School in Salt Lake City, Utah, provides a number of programs that assist homeless and vulnerable low-income students, who comprise more than 90 percent of their enrollment. Unlike Jennings, East High School works with area shelters, rather than housing students themselves. Still, since two-thirds of the 2,000 students enrolled are eligible for two free meals a day, staff have their work cut out for them. Kris Barta, the school’s family support specialist, says that while 80 students are officially homeless, many students live without daily input from a concerned adult, whether a parent, guardian, other relative or older friend. When faculty and the PTA came to grips with this, she says that they decided to “change focus from fluffy things to hardcore helping out.”

In concrete terms, this meant establishing a year-round food pantry; giving students access to free laundry facilities; and opening a no-cost clothing shop. “We fired up a food pantry with purchased goods and donations of staples like flour, oil and canned goods; it is staffed five days a week for 30 minutes before and after school for students and their families. All they have to do is show up. They pay nothing,” Barta says.

Similarly, a former ROTC room was converted into a boutique where donated clothing — some new, some used — is available to every student in the school. “About 100 kids a day stop by and go through the stash,” Barta boasts.

Staff also pay close attention to each student. “If it looks like someone has a toothache, we get them to a dentist. If they can’t see well we get them a voucher for an eye screening and glasses. If they need a doctor we get them to one,” Barta says. “We also have several washers and dryers that were donated and a fully stocked shower room where students can bathe. A supply of deodorant, bath towels, shampoo, soap, sanitary napkins and razors are also provided and are plentiful enough to be taken as needed.”

She further credits the personal attention that is meted out for keeping the lion’s share of East High’s students enrolled — and on schedule to graduate.

Getting personal attention, says Sasha, a 20-year-old student at Delaware County Community College in Media, Pennsylvania, makes all the difference. Although Sasha bounced from state to state as she came of age, she says that she is grateful to a perceptive counselor who encouraged her to enroll in college. Originally from Sierra Leone, Sasha was never officially homeless; nevertheless, she and her family moved 12 times between 2004 and 2015. “We moved so much that I didn’t think about my future or my education,” she confides. “I grew up taking care of my sisters and brother and was just trying to survive. Then, in my second to last high school, a counselor introduced me to AVID, Advancement Via Individual Determination. This program showed me that there were things I could do after high school. It motivated me to graduate and further my studies. The counselor pushed me hard, literally bringing scholarship forms to me and helping me fill them out. She really opened my eyes to the world outside.”

Sasha expects to complete an Associate’s Degree in nursing in 2019. Her success, she stresses, is not solely an individual achievement, but was made possible by the academic and material supports she received — among them a safe, affordable space in which to rest and work.

Providing Stable Housing Changes Things

A pilot program, orchestrated by the Tacoma, Washington Housing Authority and that city’s McCarver Elementary School, is demonstrating the link between stable housing and successful academic performance.

Michael Mirra, executive director of the Tacoma Housing Authority, reports that 2017 is the seventh year of the Tacoma Housing Authority Education Project. Although the program has numerous components — including encouraging reading by providing free books to residents of Housing Authority developments, helping children and parents set up bank accounts, and registering all eighth graders for Washington State’s College Bound Scholarship — its linchpin is an effort that began at McCarver Elementary School in 2012.

“The student population at McCarver was the poorest in the region and maybe the poorest in the state, with more homeless kids than any other school in the area,” Mirra says. “What caught our eye was the transient rate, up to 179 percent per year. This meant that if 30 kids started in September, by June the student population would have turned over twice. We knew that that much transience was ruinous to students, their classmates and teachers.”

A cash infusion enabled the Housing Authority to provide five years of rental assistance to 50 families with 85 K-to-second graders enrolled at McCarver. In exchange, parents had to agree to keep their children in the school, attend parent-teacher conferences and PTA meetings, help their children with homework, and address their own personal challenges — whether domestic violence, lack of vocational or academic training, or physical or mental illnesses.

“About one-third of the families have done very well and are now able to find shelter independently; one-third have done so-so; and one-third have made zero progress and will need help moving into permanent, supportive housing,” Mirra reports.

And the children? Mirra says that 67 percent are now reading at grade level and the McCarver transient rate has decreased to 80 percent.

Unfortunately, all of the families will lose their rent subsidy in August and no one can predict whether the gains made by students will last. Still, Mirra and the staff at McCarver are hopeful.

“The main enemy here is hopelessness,” Mirra concludes. “People have to see a future for themselves and their families.”

This, of course, is incontestable. At the same time, people need more than hope; they need concrete supports. As Art McCoy — the school superintendent in Jennings, Missouri — affirms, they need governmental support.

“Existing government programs do not meet student needs for food, transportation, shelter and financial assistance,” he says. “Sometimes, this comes from a lack of understanding. At other times, it comes from a lack of empathy.”

In 2016, he says, the Obama administration gave families the right to keep their children in the same school even if they moved to a shelter in a different neighborhood. “The goal was to stop displacing homeless children, but the law did not include provisions for additional funding to pay transportation costs,” he says. “It was costing us $1000 to $1500 a month to transport students to school. This reflected a lack of understanding. Unfortunately, the government has now moved from lack of understanding to a lack of caring.”

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