Breaking the Cycle of Homelessness for America’s Students and Families

In a recent video, the New York City Rescue Mission proved just how invisible America’s homeless are. Have the Homeless Become Invisible? illustrates the challenge. In this social experiment several people came face to face with their relatives and loved ones dressed as homeless persons on the streets of Soho. Not one individual recognized his or her loved ones.

Imagine walking past your brother or sister, homeless and on the streets, and not knowing them. Most Americans don’t want to believe it but homelessness in our country is tragically pervasive. And according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 41% of the homeless population is comprised of families with children. is comprised of families with children. The National Center on Family Homelessness estimates that more than 2.5 million children experience homelessness each year.

But, there’s good news: communities aren’t standing idly by as homeless students and their families struggle. Recent briefs issued by the National Center for Homeless Education demonstrate that collaborations between housing authorities and school districts can help to break the cycle of homeless for families and children.

Schools are probably a family’s most trusted institution and when local housing agencies and foundations enter into partnership with them, they can reach families earlier in their housing crisis. These collaborations also provide school leaders opportunities to deal more effectively with the academic and social needs of the students

A pilot program at McCarver Elementary School in Tacoma, Washington is an example of a partnership between the school, the local housing authority, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and several other local agencies. This project brought fifty families to the school, attending conferences, volunteering, and working with caseworkers. In return, these families received vouchers to help cover the cost of housing.

During the course of the program, parents have made considerable progress toward financial stability, family incomes have almost doubled, and students have made gains in educational performance. Between the first and second years, the percent of students in the program reading at grade level nearly doubled and remained on par with all McCarver students in year three.

Two other demonstration projects have entered into similar collaborations. Working closely with Boulder Valley School District and the St. Vrain Valley School District, the Boulder County Housing Authority used funds received from a HOME grant to identify families at risk of becoming homeless to set financial and educational goals. Families in the program signed an agreement to allow case managers to work with them to support their children’s academic success. Case managers participate in various school meetings, modeling appropriate behavior for the parents and encouraging their involvement in their children’s schools. This unique support system has resulted in increased financial self-sufficiency and additional academic support, including free and low cost computers and Internet access.

In December 2014, Hamilton Family Center entered into a partnership with the San Francisco Unified School District to address family homelessness in the school system. When a teacher, counselor, social worker, or nurse learns that a family is in crisis, they call the Family Center hotline. Within three business days, staff arrive at the school and work with the family to assist with finding housing.

With funding from Google and other donors, the Hamilton Family Center is able to serve approximately 10 families a month. Through this new partnership, teams work together on issues of educational performance, truancy, and emotional development with homeless or at-risk students.

According to Secretary Duncan, “Schools, with additional support from local community organizations and governments and private foundations, are a critical link to help stabilize the family by reducing mobility, supporting enrollment and attendance, providing homework support, and improving student achievement.”

All families, especially those living in unstable or inadequate housing and high poverty, deserve efficient and integrated resources to help them achieve economic stability and educational success.

Programs like the ones in Tacoma, Boulder, and San Francisco demonstrate that homeless families don’t need to remain invisible. The outlook for these families with children can improve dramatically when the barriers that keep them hidden are removed.

Elizabeth Williamson is an Education Program Specialist in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Communications and Outreach in Philadelphia, PA.

ED Program Helps Put Homeless Students on Right Track

According to a 2009 study, four in 10 children in Milwaukee are poor. Milwaukee Public Schools is the largest school district in Wisconsin with an enrollment of 80,000 students — 80 percent qualify for free or reduced-priced meals. More than 2,500 students have been identified as homeless.

Despite these figures, the school district has taken strides towards improving attendance rates and increasing outreach efforts to families and community agencies, and last year the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth recognized Milwaukee Public Schools for its outstanding school-based program in homeless education.

Milwaukee Public Schools has employed a homeless coordinator since 1987, although they mostly worked with shelters until the 2002 McKinney-Vento Act. During the 2011 fiscal year, the McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youths Grant allocated $63.6 million across the country, helping every state address the problems associated with student homelessness. In the Milwaukee School District, the McKinney-Vento grant, along with Title I funding, support three homeless coordinators, with the requirement that school districts remove all barriers to the educational process for homeless children and reach out to more homeless kids – including those who have sleeping arrangements that are not permanent or regular.

Catherine Klein is one of the homeless coordinators with the school district who oversees the programs of 180 schools.

According to Klein, each principal appoints someone in the school who identifies homeless families who are then enrolled in a database.

“We encourage homeless contacts to keep an eye on students so they can refer them to programs. To ensure that all school staff members know about it, we train homeless contacts every year,” she said. “Teachers usually know the children are homeless and give them extra time or a place to do homework projects in the classroom.”

Services provided by the program include free lunch, transportation, access to school supplies, as well as access to all other school programs like special education and tutoring. The coordinators also provide community resource guides to families, showing them how to obtain low cost healthcare, dental care, locations of shelters, food pantries and instructions on how to navigate the social service system.

Klein has seen the number of families served increase 15 to 20 percent every year – partly due to school personnel being more aware of the program, but also the economics of the area.

“Just today I saw three families with four kids each,” she said.

For the past two years the program has seen more involvement with organizations and agencies that give material donations to the district.

Lee Wackman is chairman of HL Palmer Masonic Angel Fund, which provides assistance to children in need, as requested from school principals. Wackman chartered the foundation in Milwaukee about four years ago.

One day this past winter, he went to an elementary school where he saw four children arrive with no coats, and after going from class to class, learned that 49 students came to school without jackets.

Within 24 hours, the Angel Fund acquired and brought in jackets for all of them.

In addition to clothing, the foundation delivers 500 to 1,000 hygiene kits at a time to schools, containing a toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, soap, deodorant and a laundry bag with a note that says “touched by an angel.”

“Why do I do this?” Wackman said. “I’ve been blessed in my life – I have seven grandchildren. If something happened to me, I would like someone to be there for them.”

Wackman knew a 16-year-old student whose counselor from school called saying he had been wearing the same clothes for three months. He took him to a department store to buy some nice casual clothing for school. The student told Wackman he had been living in a friend’s basement and had wanted a Christmas for the past two years.

The boy said, “You just gave me a Christmas.”

Click here for more information from ED on the McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youths Grants for State and Local Activities.

Natalie Torentinos is a graduate student at The George Washington University and an intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach.