By: Sonya O. Hunte, MSW
Americans were astonished as they viewed the 60 Minutes special, Hard Times Generation: Families Living in Cars. The special focused on the issue of family homelessness in central Florida. Particularly highlighted were children and youth facing homelessness in the Seminole County school district. There was hope in the story—the resilience of families and the efforts of Homeless Education Liaison, Beth Davalos.
Meet homeless child, John Scofield, Jr., who is six years of age. John and Yvette Scofield had been having marital discord for some time. One Friday evening, the argument escalated, and John hit Yvette—a bruised eye, cheek, and lip resulted. Scared for her life and that of John Jr., Yvette fled the home. Mrs. Scofield left her home scared and without any income or access to monetary resources. Yvette’s friend volunteered at a domestic violence shelter, Renewed Hope, about two years earlier in a neighboring county. After living in her car for two nights, Yvette checked into that very shelter on Sunday morning. Fearing returning to her old neighborhood and John Jr.’s school, Yvette asked her case manager about other school options for John Jr. After all, Yvette wanted John Jr. to have a consistent education, despite their now transitional state. The shelter case manager recalled information from a Mc-Kinney-Vento training given by the local school district’s Homeless Education Liaison at the shelter site. The case manager shared with Yvette that John Jr. could attend the school zoned for the shelter. John Jr. was registered and attended classes at his new school that Monday morning with guidance from the school social worker and registrar.
Homeless education is a movement mostly known to school-based and child welfare social workers. Guided by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, this form of education seeks to provide parameters for eliminating barriers to school enrollment, attendance, and academic success for children and youth facing homelessness. Named after Representatives Stewart B. McKinney of Connecticut and Bruce F. Vento of Minnesota, the McKinney-Vento Act’s purpose is to close the achievement gap of students in transition with accountability, flexibility, and choice, so no child is left behind. This law, reauthorized as Title X, Part C, of the No Child Left Behind Act in January 2002, defines homelessness and provides school-based services targeting the needs of those who are in transition.
Since 2007, Americans have been feeling the effects of the housing crisis. Daily media messages on the debt ceiling, increasing unemployment rates, job availability, and the housing market’s implications confirm what we already know—there is an economic downturn. These factors matter and greatly influence the issue of homelessness in America. In particular, family homelessness brings additional factors like educating children into play.
According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, America’s Youngest Outcasts 2010, there are 1.6 million children facing homelessness each year. The U.S. Department of Education reports that in the school year 2009, 954,914 children and youth were considered homeless. The McKinney-Vento Act is an intersection of the child welfare, education, housing, health care, and other social welfare systems.
The Act explicitly defines those who lack fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime shelter as homeless. The Act further discusses the types of nighttime residences that would qualify a student as being homeless. Those residences are hotels and motels, shelters and transitional facilities, unsheltered and living spaces not fit for human habitation, families who are doubled up with another family because of economic hardship, and children awaiting foster care. Each state has the ability to create statewide policy and legislation in an effort to provide an explicit definition on awaiting foster care. Children who are in foster care cannot be considered McKinney-Vento eligible; however, there are supports for this population directed by the Fostering Connections Act. Also covered under this Act are unaccompanied youth, students who are not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian.
Meet Nichole Porowsky, age 20, who has been couch surfing for the past three months. She had been thrown out by her parents after disclosing that she was four months pregnant. Nichole found herself living under a bridge after running out of friends who allowed her to stay at their place. Nichole walked into StandUp For Kids, an organization that provides resources for youth who mainly live on the street. After meeting Kendra, a volunteer with StandUp For Kids, Nichole decided to enroll in school as a part of her independence plan.
Nichole had not been to school in the previous three months, although she was four classes shy of receiving her high school diploma. Kendra contacted the Kings County Public School System’s Homeless Education Liaison for assistance. Within hours, Nichole was enrolled in school and given school supplies and a bus pass. The liaison also made a referral for Nichole to meet with a doula and social worker at the Second Chance Homes as a supportive housing option. The homeless liaison was able to contact the Second Chance Homes, because she established a formal community partnership after a review of data indicated that unaccompanied youth who were either parents or expecting a child dropped out of school for a lack of parenting supports. The Memorandum of Understanding between Second Chance Homes and the school district outlined that eligible students would receive a doula, available housing, life skills training, and free child care for the duration of their time in school. Nichole was also introduced to her school social worker for additional school and community based supports.
Each school district is charged and mandated by law to identify a staff member called the Homeless Education Liaison. The liaison’s role is to identify and provide supports for students facing transition. Supports take on many forms, including technical assistance to parents and school administration, data coordination, grant writing and monitoring, and program development. This person, typically a social worker, has the opportunity to provide supports to ensure that each homeless student is able to remain in school and thrive. The work is not done in isolation, but in partnership with internal and external stakeholders. The stakeholders include but are not limited to parents, school nutrition, housing agencies, shelters, and the local Continuum of Care. Liaisons are provided technical assistance by state Departments of Education, homeless education consultants, and the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.
Stable educational environments provide children with social and supportive relationships with peers, educators, and the community that surrounds the school. Steady education is mostly maintained by providing transportation, social services, and educational enrichment opportunities for homeless students. Often, when families are forced to move frequently, children may attend a few different schools within a school year. Homeless students are typically provided with transportation supports to remain in their school of origin. The school of origin is the school that the child attended when permanently housed or the last school of attendance. There are times when attending a new school may be a better fit for a student. For example, when a family is fleeing a domestic violence perpetrator, it may be in the student’s best interest to attend a new school where he or she is least likely to be located by the harmful party.
In summary, if you know a family that meets the above definition of homelessness, utilize their school district’s Homeless Education Liaison as a resource. The McKinney-Vento law makes provisions and supports students who are in transition by providing transportation, educational, and social service supports to result in a stable and successful education. The ultimate goals of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act are to have students be promoted in grade, meet and exceed standardized test requirements, graduate from high school, become gainfully employed, and be active citizens.
For additional resources on McKinney-Vento, visit:
McKinney-Vento full text and Policy Guidance: http://center.serve.org/nche/
National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY): http://www.naechy.org
National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP): http://www.nlchp.org
Bassuk, E. L., Murphy, C., Thompson Coupe, N., Kenney, R. R., & Beach, C. A. (2011, December). State Report Card of Child Homelessness: America’s Youngest Outcasts 2010. The National Center on Family Homelessness. Retrieved April 20, 2012, from http://www.homelesschildrenamerica.org/media/NCFH_AmericaOutcast2010_web.pdf.
Pelley, S. (2011, November 27). Hard times generation: Families living in cars. 60 Minutes. Retrieved April 20, 2012, from http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18560_162-57330802/hard-times-generation-families-living-in-cars/?tag=currentVideoInfo;videoMetaInfo.
Webb, J. (2011, January 26). Assistant Deputy Secretary to participate in homeless count in Durham, North Carolina. U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved April 20, 2012, from http://www.ed.gov/news/media-advisories/assistant-deputy-secretary-participate-homeless-count-durham-north-carolina.
Sonya O. Hunte, MSW, is a Homeless Education Liaison with the Atlanta Public Schools. Her social work career has spanned over a decade in direct service and program management within child welfare, juvenile justice, and education settings. She is a speaker, author, social service consultant, and entrepreneur, serving as the CEO of Hunte Community Development Consulting LLC.
This article appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER. Copyright 2012 White Hat Communications. All rights reserved.