No Place Like Home
Since the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, school districts must provide services for homeless students. Some districts are meeting and even exceeding the challenge. Others aren’t even sure how to recognize homelessness.
Photo: Courtesy Kathy Olson/Emerson Elementary
It’s difficult enough for some children to get out of bed, eat a decent breakfast, and arrive at school on time. But for hundreds of thousands of elementary, middle, and high school students, these tasks are almost insurmountable. These children are homeless—either temporarily or on a long-term basis. They stay with relatives, in crowded motel rooms, and in shelters, and getting to school at all is a major challenge, never mind the oxymoronic suggestion of “homework.”
In Maplewood, Missouri, school district officials want to make the road to academic stability easier for their homeless students. In partnership with a local church and community, the Maplewood-Richmond Heights district, outside St. Louis, began a group home for homeless boys called Joe’s Place.
Joe’s Place was conceived, says Superintendent Linda Henke, after teachers repeatedly told administrators they wished they could take their homeless students home with them. In 2006, Henke says, “We decided we should just try.” About 25 of the district’s 1,000 students are classified as homeless.
The district bought a house two blocks from the high school to serve as the home. The project was established as a nonprofit, with funding from the district, and costs $34,000 a year in insurance, mortgage, and utilities to keep afloat. Four boys, ages 16 to 18, live in the house each school year, getting meals, structured time for homework, and lessons in life skills. House parents Dan and Alyssa Reeve provide guidance for the teens and monitor their schoolwork. Dan Reeve is a middle school teacher, and saw the experience as an opportunity to address student needs outside the regular classroom.
Four students may not seem like many, but Henke says the district is making progress keeping its homeless students, many of whom live in shelters, from slipping through the cracks. And, she adds, the existence of Joe’s Place may encourage more homeless students to open up about their situations.
Who Is Homeless?
Some estimates suggest that 20 percent of homeless children nationally don’t attend school at all, and a number of those who do will change schools two or three times in one year, regressing academically with each move. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 602,568 K–12 students were homeless in 2003–2004. Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, every school district in the country must have a liaison to work with its homeless students. But districts vary greatly when it comes to services. While some can offer only the minimum, districts from Wisconsin to Florida work aggressively to keep their homeless students in school by providing after-school programs, transportation, financial help, and tutoring.
For school staff, it’s not always easy to know which students are homeless. Many students and their parents will hide the truth, out of embarrassment or fear of being separated. Obvious signs include poor hygiene and frequent absences, but vagueness about an address, hoarding food, or erratic behavior can be other indicators. (See “Signs of Homelessness,” on page 30). The key is for everyone—teachers, staff, and administrators—to establish a good relationship with students, Henke says.
“We have to be aware of the kind of issues our students are dealing with, and sometimes it requires looking deeply,” she says. “They aren’t going to confide in strangers.”
The definition of “homeless” used by educators includes more than those living on the streets. Some homeless students live in shelters, but more often families stay in motels or with relatives. Some are temporarily homeless because of a fire or domestic abuse situation, and soon they’ll have a place. Others are perpetually homeless because a parent has a drug addiction, has trouble keeping a job, or simply can’t manage his or her life.
Deb Bailey, a school social worker in Manatee County, Florida, says homeless families used to be invisible. When a program for homeless students began in her district in 1993, people said, “We don’t have any homeless people in Manatee County,” Bailey recalls.
Yet last school year, the School District of Manatee County counted 2,250 homeless students. The numbers fluctuate depending on damage from hurricanes, but many single mothers are continually homeless, according to Bailey.
“Most people don’t identify themselves. They say, ‘Well, I’m staying with my sister. I’ve got a roof over my head.’ They don’t see themselves as homeless—homeless is a street person,” she says. “It’s the label that turns people off.” But the label also starts the process of getting help.