Brandy became homeless during her sophomore year in high school. She, her mom, and her sister left a home riddled with abuse. Brandy moved more than 15 times – staying in shelters, with friends, friends of friends, and eventually with anyone who would let her sleep on their floor or couch.
Despite these constant shifts, Brandy was able to stay in the same school because of a federal law, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which among other things paved the way for the hiring of two school “homeless liaisons.” These liaisons helped her travel to and from school, made sure she had something to eat during the day, clothes to wear, and encouraged her to aspire and thrive. This law and the support she received in school proved critical to Brandy’s success in high school and later in college.
As a civil legal aid attorney with Columbia Legal Services, I help homeless students and their families address barriers to their enrollment and participation in school. I use a variety of tools such as community education about McKinney-Vento, data and policy analysis, and individual and legislative advocacy.
McKinney-Vento recognizes and provides strong protections that promote education continuity. It gives homeless students the right to transportation to and from school; the right to enroll in school immediately (even without registration records); and the right to have a district-level homeless liaison that helps out with whatever a student may need for academic success. Those protections make McKinney-Vento one of the strongest education laws and, when enforced, it has done a great deal to assist students like Brandy. But far too few students are afforded these crucial legal rights. Take Brandy’s sister, Felicity. She did not receive the support of a homeless liaison. With each move, she lost credits, friends, and the opportunity to receive a basic education. She repeated the ninth grade four times.
Felicity’s story is unjust and all too common. In Washington State alone, we have 32,000 homeless students, which represents an 82 percent increase from the 2006-2007 school year. That’s enough to fill half of the seats in the Seattle Seahawks’ enormous football stadium. It’s particularly disturbing because children are estimated to lose four to six months in academic progress each time they move during the school year.
Children and youth who are of color, LGBT, who have limited English proficiency or disabilities are more likely to be homeless than their peers. We also know that homeless students struggle in school when compared to their housed peers; in fact, they are less than half as likely to be proficient in math, with similar gaps in other subjects. These disparities also hurt local communities and society generally, since these students are about half as likely to graduate as their housed peers and more likely to end up in the criminal justice system. It makes sense because imagine trying to focus in school when you have moved five times during the school year because your family could not find an affordable place to stay; or trying to study for an important math test in a crammed one-bedroom apartment where seven other people live.
This crisis of student homelessness comes fourteen years after the passage of McKinney-Vento. While the federal government provides grants to help schools fulfill their obligations under the legislation, these dollars are extremely limited. For example, in Washington, only 34 of 295 school districts received McKinney-Vento grants last year. That means most schools don’t have a homeless liaison, and when they do, they are juggling multiple job positions and can only devote a few hours a week to serving the needs of homeless students. As a result, students suffer and the spirit of the legislation is undermined.
The fact is that we need to increase funding for McKinney-Vento. But we can’t stop there. We must also provide housing subsidies to families experiencing homelessness. A recent study, by the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that families are more likely to maintain stable housing if provided with a permanent housing subsidy.
With this idea in mind, Columbia Legal Services is working to provide stable housing for homeless students and their families by engaging in state-level advocacy. In 2014, we helped pass the Homeless Children Education Act (HCEA) that required the state to provide comprehensive data on homeless student graduation rates. This data-driven approach is already helping advocacy groups and policy makers develop a better picture of how homeless students fare academically compared to their housed peers and which education reforms are needed to better support homeless students.
The McKinney-Vento Act alone cannot guarantee education continuity. The few schools that are able to hire full-time liaisons cannot fully address the biggest need of homeless students: safe and stable housing. When the bell rings, kids should be concerned about homework, not working to find a home.