November 2019

Advocating for Students Experiencing Temporary Living and Homeless Situations

By Cynthia J. Lancaster
As more and more people struggle to make a living wage in Rhode Island, the number of students experiencing temporary living and homelessness has increased, growing from 1,004 in 2014 to 1,245 in 2016–2017 – just under one percent of all public school students. When discussing issues of diversity in schools, homeless students can be easily overlooked, an invisible minority, hiding in plain sight.  Like other stigmatized populations, their numbers are likely much higher than is reported for various reasons: fear of being discovered, shame, and even simply not understanding that they qualify as “homeless” under McKinney-Vento, the federal law protecting them.  Children and youth who “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” are protected by this federal law, which supersedes state and local laws. For example, when families lose their residence due to economic hardship and move in with friends or relatives, this arrangement is termed “doubling up” and qualifies as homeless under McKinney-Vento. Other situations that qualify as homelessness include shelters/transitional housing, hotels/motels or unsheltered (such as cars, campgrounds, temporary trailers or abandoned buildings).

RIDE figures show that doubling up is the most common housing arrangement, yet the families with whom I have worked typically have no idea they are protected under this law. McKinney-Vento ensures that students have the right to continue in their “school of origin,” or the school they last attended when they became homeless, even if that means another district or state. The idea is that when the rest of their lives are in turmoil, their school remains constant and those connections with friends, teachers and counselors remain intact.

Early in my career as a school counselor, I worked with a family whose son had missed an entire year of school due to complications of being homeless. As he and his mother “couch hopped” with family and friends in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, they were unaware that he should have been allowed to remain in his school of origin, as long as it was in his best interest and what they wanted – with transportation provided by the two districts. Another family was evicted when the landlord learned that they allowed my student and his mother to live in an unheated storage space in the basement. Over the course of that year, this student moved seven times but because of McKinney-Vento, he was able to remain in his school of origin.  All of the districts involved (school of origin and new school) had to share the cost and responsibility of transporting him back and forth to school. As we all know, moving from school is very disruptive to a child’s well-being. It affects them socially, emotionally and academically, which in turn negatively impact the student’s postsecondary plans, assuming they complete high school. Based on data from 44 states, the graduation rate for students experiencing homelessness was 64 percent, 13 percent below low-income students (77 percent) and 20 percent below the rate for all students (84 percent). Getting an education and making future career plans is the way out of the situations these students are enduring.

School counselors are often uniquely poised to learn about a student’s living situation, and as a result, often the first to learn about families’ financial hardships. For example, a student was brought to me because she had been crying in class. I learned that she was worried about her older sister in high school, who would get “in trouble” for not having certain art supplies for her class. However, when I spoke to their father, he broke down crying, telling me he did not have enough money for food, let alone school supplies. Not surprisingly, these families also face numerous serious and complicated problems such as domestic violence, addiction, trauma and mental illness, which are beyond what a school can address without outside agency support. I have found it helpful to refer to the Family Care and Community Partnership (FCCP) for wrap-around help and crisis stabilization. They assist families in many areas, including with housing, substance abuse treatment, basic needs, employment education and training, parenting support, counseling and community resources.  There are several locations in Rhode Island in the following regions:
  1. Northern: Community Care Alliance, 401- 235-7252
  2. East Urban: Communities for People, 1-833-FCCP-123
  3. West Urban: Family Service of RI, 401-519-2280
  4. East Bay: Child and Family, 401-849-2300
Some basics of McKinney-Vento are summarized below:
  • Has no specific time limit on homelessness and may extend beyond the school year as long as the child is homeless
  • Applies to runaways, children in foster care, and children being cared for because their parents or guardians cannot care (e.g., due to illness, incarceration or hospitalization), unaccompanied youth, migrant students, undocumented youth, and students displaced after a disaster (e.g., a fire or hurricane)
  • Applies to families who “double up,” or share housing, due to economic hardship
  • Has no specific income limits for families
  • Can cross state lines
  • Applies to public schools, including charter and technical schools
  • Applies to children and youth in preschool and K–12, under the age of 21
  • Requires LEAs to disseminate public notice of the education rights in locations frequented by parents and caregivers of homeless children, such as schools, shelters and public libraries in languages
  • Allows students to be immediately enrolled, even if missing records or documents, such as proof of residence, immunization/medical records, academic records or legal guardianship
  • Allows students access to the same programs, services and activities available to all other students
  • Should be determined on a case-by-case basis and be in the best interest of the child
  • Provides access to all school programs, including lunch program, special education and extracurricular activities, fees associated with the AP testing and financial aid
The RIDE website provides more detailed information including the homeless liaison for every LEA in Rhode Island (your first point of contact after learning a student might qualify as homeless), the state coordinator at RIDE and many other resources. Schoolhouse Connection in particular has a multitude of incredible, ready-to-go resources, such as tips for staff to identify students who might be homeless, guides on how to support parents in a discrete way given the stigma of being homeless, as well as ways to help students apply to college. Here is a quick summary of the steps they suggest:
  1. Learn more about McKinney-Vento and connect with your local liaison
  2. Create a welcoming climate and build trust with all students
  3. Help to identify and support students experiencing homelessness (they offer specific signs)
  4. Take a trauma-informed approach
  5. Stabilize basic needs and support full participation in school
  6. Ensure classroom policies and procedures set students up for success (have snacks, hygiene supplies, school supplies on hand; help families complete lunch application forms)
  7. 7.Reach out to parents/caregivers - as uncomfortable and scary as that might be, make sure they understand their rights (Cindy’s addition)

Learn more and access the sources used in this article:

Cynthia J. Lancaster is a school counselor at Joseph L. McCourt Middle School in Cumberland, R.I.