As Student Homelessness Worsens, Educators Work to Keep Them in School

By Edward Graham

Last year, the National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE), funded by the Department of Education,  issued a report showing that the number of homeless students who attended public schools during the 2010-2011 school year had topped one million.

The crisis has continued to worsen. According to the new NCHE report released this week, during the 2011-2012 school year, 1,168,354 homeless students attended schools across the country, a 10% increase over the previous year and a 24% increase overall since the 2009-2010 school year.

Lisa Phillips, the State Coordinator for Homeless Education in North Carolina, has first-hand knowledge of the growing number of homeless students.

“When I began as the state coordinator in May of 2009, we were identifying approximately 16,947 students as being in transition,” Phillips says. “Today, the total number of students identified as being in transition is just over 28,000 in our schools.”

But while the number of homeless students may be on the rise nationally, programs are in place to ensure that homelessness doesn’t prevent students from attending school. As the state coordinator for homeless education, Phillips is tasked with ensuring that all public schools in North Carolina are in compliance with the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, a federal law which helps children and youth experiencing homelessness have full and equal access to a public education.

The McKinney-Vento Act defines homeless individuals as those “…who lack a fixed, regular, or adequate nighttime residence,” and extends protections to those living on the street, in a shelter, with a friend, or who otherwise live a transient lifestyle through no fault of their own.

But while the law is the most comprehensive tool for identifying homeless students and providing them with the resources they need to stay in school and succeed academically, funding shortfalls are undermining in-school homeless programs. Barbara Duffield, the Policy Director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY), says that, “Even with the most general interpretation of what constitutes a subgrant, only 22% of districts receive funding from McKinney-Vento.”

With sequestration further limiting the amount of national McKinney-Vento funding to $61.7 million, Duffield says that most schools rely on Title I funding or community support to help them meet the growing number of homeless students in the classroom.

“We’ve seen a 71% increase in the number of homeless kids since the recession, starting in 2006-2007,” says Duffield. “But the funding has also gone down, so the reality for many schools is they can get more use from the Title-1 set-aside funds and doing more work with their communities in terms of raising money than they can from McKinney-Vento funding.”

Among the most important provisions in McKinney-Vento was the establishment of homeless liaisons for schools and districts. These liaisons are essential for supporting homeless students, but they also play a critical role in training teachers and providing them with professional support to notice the indicators of students who may be experiencing homelessness.

“The homeless liaisons are charged with making sure all educators are familiar with the common characteristics we see in children and youth who are homeless,” Phillips says. “The common indicators include poor attendance or attendance at several schools, poor hygiene, gaps in learning, transportation problems, poor health and nutrition, and a lack of preparedness for class.”

And Duffield says that teachers need to remain vigilant for the signs, whether it’s students discussing moving from one friend’s house to another or a student wearing the same clothes on a daily basis. In one instance, a student had to move into a cramped and bug-filled motel with her family when times got tough. She would spend most of her nights lying awake, itching and uncomfortable, and would only be able to sleep when she was at school. Once the teacher found out what was going on, she was able to connect the student with the homeless liaison to help provide her with better resources.

“One of the most important things to understand is that there are homeless students everywhere, even wealthy communities,” says Duffield. “There may be rural or affluent communities where it wouldn’t occur to the teacher that their students’ situation meets the federal definition of homelessness.”

So how can teachers help homeless students in their own classrooms? After identifying and connecting them with the school or district’s homeless liaison, teachers can help them by being understanding advocates. Simple steps like talking with the students and letting them know they’re there for them, or setting aside classroom materials—pencils, pens, calculators, etc.—that the students can use are great ways for teachers to make homeless students feel welcome in school.

Duffield shared the story of a student named Patrick who wrote an essay for the NAEHCY’s LeTendre Education Fund, a scholarship that provides financial support to homeless students. Patrick had survived years of abuse at the hands of his father and uncle, only to be thrown out of his house by his mother when he told her that he was gay. Despite having to move in with a friend, Patrick continued to attend high school and grew close with one of the teachers from his ESL class.

“Mrs. Mayr knows my story by heart, and she offered to be my mentor, my best friend, and above all, to be the mom I never had,” Patrick said. “I believed she had done everything in her power to lift me up from the hell I was living in. She was there for me in good and bad times. She took me to the hospital at the time when my health deteriorated, held my hands and stayed with me until I was stable. I invited her to many events like scholarship awards, honor dinners and even graduation, for I strongly believe she contributed to my success more than anybody in my life. She inspired me to give back, to help others and to be successful.”

It’s true—one positive and caring educator can have a truly transformative impact on their students’ lives. Through the support and understanding of their teachers and school advocates, homeless students like Patrick can transcend their situations and embrace the possibility of a limitless future.

“I don’t think it is exaggerating to say that teachers save the lives of many homeless students,” says Duffield.