Educators Can’t Help Homeless Students If They Can’t Identify Them

Diversity and Equity

Educators Can’t Help Homeless Students If They Can’t Identify Them

By Jenny Abamu     Nov 22, 2017

Educators Can’t Help Homeless Students If They Can’t Identify Them

This story is part of an EdSurge Research series about how educators are changing their practices to reach all learners.

At the beginning of my fifth grade school year, my family was homeless, or as some say, transitional—meaning an individual who is a resident in temporary housing. We lived in hotels for a period of time. And we would “double up,” which means to live with other families.

I don’t remember much from that year, but I do remember that no one asked if I was alright. No one seemed to notice—not my classmates, teachers or administrators. For a long time, I didn't even know there was a technical term for my housing situation, and I didn't realize being an unidentified transitional student in Texas is not unique, either.

In a research report released last week, Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit research policy organization, estimated that during the 2014-15 school year 113,000 homeless students were enrolled in Texas schools. Though this was an increase in the number of students reported homeless in the past, researchers are still wary of the number of districts reporting they have no homeless youth.

The report claims that more than 25 percent of Texas districts (335 of the 1,247 school districts) reported no homeless students, leading them to believe that many are going unidentified.

“We frequently saw children and young people whose juvenile justice involvement or problems at school were the result of homelessness or housing instability,” the report reads. “The difficulties that communities and families across the state struggle with caused by the lack of affordable and safe housing.”

Within the report, researchers attribute a major cause of the inaccurate reporting to a lack of federal funding from the Mckinney-Vento Act, federal legislation created to help fund needs and provide access to homeless students.

The policy was recently reauthorized through the Every Student Succeeds Act, but funding to enforce the law has been insufficient—not covering the full cost associated with meeting student needs or providing staff who can identify homeless youth.

The researchers say this lack of funding discourages school districts from identifying homeless youth, which means many students cannot take advantage of the resources mandated for them through the legislation.

In addition to cost, through conducting over 100 interviews with transitional youth, researchers also discovered that many students worked hard to conceal their homeless status because of the stigma associated with the term or out of fear that they might be put into foster care.

Heather Anderson is a transitional student coordinator at Paducah Public Schools in Paducah, Kentucky. Her job, funded through a Mckinney-Vento grant, is multifaceted—leaving her doing everything from gathering winter coats for students to running an after-school program for the district. She says one of her most difficult duties includes identifying homeless students.

“When a student registers, the form they use asks whether their current living situation is temporary and if so, there are more follow-up questions. I go through all those forms and follow-up on the answers,” she explains.

Anderson identifies students who are living in hotels, motels, with other families, in emergency shelters, domestic violence shelters and those who are completely unsheltered. She also identifies students who are living in cars, abandoned buildings or substandard housing where there may be a hole in the floor or no water and electricity.

Sometimes educators will come to Anderson asking for support in a situation. “I have a lot of coaches come to me and say, ‘Hey, something weird is going on, can you check this out?’ It is a lot investigative work” she says.

Anderson has only been at her job for two years, and she describes her role as a mix between being a fairy godmother and a firefighter. It involves part investigator and problem-solver, but also giving compassion and advice.

“My day is always busy and full. It is the most incredible job I have ever had,” says Anderson. “There are days that are filled with sadness, where I end up in my car bawling my eyes out, but it is also filled with so much hope.”

Unlike most educators whose work is done when school is over, Anderson’s students and their families have her cell phone number. Her days including finding housing for students, running an after-school makerspace, identifying homeless students, supporting parents, collecting and delivering donations of food and clothing from the local community and monitoring grades, attendance and behavior.

When asked if she is able to set boundaries between her personal life and her work, she says it’s hard.

“I had a student come to me at 8 a.m. in the morning, crying, blaming herself for what was happening to her,” Anderson says between tears of her own. “You become a mom to all these kids.”

Anderson notes that though her days are full, it is not common for districts to have a full-time transitional student coordinator like herself. Though the McKinney-Vento Act requires every district in the nation have at least one person in the role, most only employ individuals with part-time contracts. And according to the report, close to 43 percent of people who occupy these roles have at least three separate job titles.

Anderson’s district is one of 14 in Kentucky that has the McKinney-Vento grant, a competitive grant that they have to reapply for every three years. This is a system that may be confusing to some because though every district is required to have someone in the role, grant funding for the work is only afforded to a few. With those funds, Anderson is employed full-time.

“I don’t know how anyone could do this job part-time,” Anderson says. “It would be virtually impossible.”

Her words, echoing findings from the Texas Appleseed report, denote how thinly stretched resources set aside for transitional populations are. The report points to overstretched homeless student coordinators who do not have the time or resources to perform their duties, which includes first identifying which students need support.

Researchers from Appleseed call on policymakers to increase federal funding so that liaison positions can be properly staffed and districts do not have a disincentive to identify homeless students. They also say local education agencies should increase their Title I funding set-asides for services to homeless students.

“If I don't get this grant will I have a job next year? I don’t know. I hope so,” Anderson continues. “I love my job, but I know either way my school district will take care of my people.”

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