Shaping an Equitable Recovery for Students Without Homes

Type: Article
Topics: Advocacy & Policy, Equity, School Administrator Magazine

November 01, 2021

Proven strategies and unprecedented resources under federal law to address child and youth homelessness
Barbara Duffield
Barbara Duffield is executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, an advocacy
organization that seeks to overcome homelessness through education. PHOTO COURTESY BARBARA DUFFIELD

School leaders are confronting monumental challenges in COVID-19 recovery this fall, while they also address the systemic inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Given the magnitude and scope of concerns, it would be easy to overlook a profoundly destabilizing experience faced by growing numbers of students: homelessness. Yet homelessness is a crisis that underlies many others in education — from attendance to mental health. In the words of Jahnee, a high school student in Florida, “I began to struggle significantly with depression, and I often felt unloved and unworthy. … My deteriorating mental health made me question everything about high school and if I would ever be able to walk across that stage. I was part of the 87 percent of teens who experience homelessness and drop out of high school.”

The fundamental connection between homelessness, racial and ethnic inequity, and educational outcomes means that neither pandemic recovery nor educational equity can be achieved without specific, intentional action by school leaders to address student homelessness.

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Barbara Duffield

Executive director

SchoolHouse Connection in Washington, D.C.

Additional Resources

Barbara Duffield of SchoolHouse Connection, a national nonprofit working to overcome homelessness through education, suggests these informational resources.

Non-Urban Systems Attending to Youth Homelessness

While homelessness is often perceived as an urban issue, it is equally prevalent in rural and suburban communities. To understand how non-urban school districts are meeting the needs of students experiencing homelessness, the insights of two school district liaisons in Paducah, Ky., and Person County, N.C., reveal some novel approaches.

In Paducah, the school district McKinney-Vento liaison, Heather Anderson, relies on the strength of the community in her homelessness identification and outreach. She has built relationships with charitable organizations and educated them on the role of schools in supporting homeless students, so they know to refer students to her when they place families in motels or shelters or when they identify families that are at risk of losing their homes.

In training school staff, she urges educators to listen closely to conversations with families for words like “foreclosure,” “eviction,” and “right now, we’re staying with ...” as indicators of homelessness.

While referrals from schools and community partners are vital, Anderson learned that the disruption caused by the pandemic — and the fear and isolation it engendered — meant that referrals alone would not suffice for identifying students experiencing homelessness. Last year, she spent more time in her van, driving around the community to look for families in laundromats, at the library and on front porches to learn what families and children need to stay connected to school and learning.

She awaits use of dedicated homelessness funding from the American Rescue Plan as an opportunity to build capacity, not only in Paducah but across western Kentucky. The mobility of students experiencing homelessness necessitates a regional approach, especially across rural districts where the homeless liaison may not be a full-time position. Using ARP funds to support a regional network will help leverage area resources, as well as support McKinney-Vento students who may live and attend school in different counties. In Paducah, the addition of a staff assistant for data entry and responding to inquiries will allow Anderson to spend even more time on community outreach.

Training Scenarios

The school district in Person County, on the North Carolina-Virginia border, is another example of a non-urban school system meeting the moment to address student homelessness. 

Cathy Waugh, homeless liaison, points to the challenges of identifying McKinney-Vento students in communities where there are limited services and no homeless shelters.

To help educators and community agencies proactively identify students, she incorporates scenarios in her training that reflect the community so educators can recognize homelessness as it appears locally. She describes a parent who lost her job at the local power plant and now spends a few nights with one relative and a few nights with another while her children stay in different places. Waugh also trains her building points-of-contact to keep an eye on the cars at school pickups and drop off times, looking for cars that may be full of possessions, indicating a family may be sleeping in their car.

Waugh is particularly proud of how her school system has met the transportation needs of students experiencing homelessness. In a county with no public transportation (“and one Uber driver on Saturday,” she says), she has developed a close relationship with a single point of contact in the school transportation department, who in turn has built close relationships with transportation directors in neighboring counties. By staying in close contact with families as they move and nimbly re-routing buses, Person County Schools ensures school attendance and stability for these vulnerable students.

Rural and suburban districts may benefit from the consortia approach that is permissible with ARP homeless funding, as well as from support provided through county offices of education, intermediate units or educational service agencies.