Sunday, November 18, 2012

Homeless, but not Helpless

Regardless of the kind of area you work in, homelessness is probably a bigger problem than you think. In urban settings, it's even more pronounced. I recently attended a training on the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act and the services available to families experiencing homelessness, and it was so informative and helpful. It was one of those trainings where I could use the information immediately the next day-- and did.

The biggest misconception about homeless is that the family is living on the streets, but it's actually living without a permanent home (specifically, a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence). "Homelessness," per the McKinney-Vento Act, can look like one of the following:
  • Sharing housing.
  • Living in a motel, hotel, trailer with wheels, or campground.
  • Emergency or transitional shelters.
  • Awaiting a foster care placement.
  • Cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, standard housing, bus or train stations.
  • A nighttime residence not ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation (i.e. park bench).
The biggest qualifier I see in my school is families sharing housing. It's actually astounding the amount of my kiddos who would qualify for McKinney-Vento now that I know this is considered a form of homelessness, because they do not have their own permanent residence. We also see a lot of families living in hotels.

How do you know if a family might be homeless? Watch the students closely. Are they wearing the same clothes every day, or don't have clothing appropriate to the weather conditions? Do they hoard food, ask for seconds, etc? Do they have working telephone numbers? Are they evasive about their living situation when asked? 

The McKinney-Vento removes the barriers impeding homeless children from attending school. It ensures homeless children transportation to and from school free of charge, allowing them to attend their school of origin (the last school they were enrolled at or the school they attended at their last permanent residence), regardless of what district the family resides in. It also requires schools to register homeless children immediately, even if they lack normally required documents, such as immunization records or proof of residence. Even after finding permanent housing, a family can access McKinney-Vento services for a year afterwards.

One thing that concerned me was how little I knew about the McKinney-Vento act. As an educator, I didn't know about a vital act that ensures proper education for disadvantaged students? And if I didn't know much about these resources, what about the parents?

Just a few days after the training, we were notified of a family who had experienced a house fire and has been living in a hotel for the past two months. The five kiddos in the family were wearing the same clothes every day, didn't have coats (good ol' Western NY weather is unkind), and always seemed hungry. Mom came into school looking for support, and we were able to provide her with quite a lot immediately. We gave the students extra uniform pants and shirts and also enrolled them in our school's Backpack Program, which provides a backpack of nonperishable food from the local food bank to students for the weekend. I also notified our district's McKinney-Vento liaison, who will contact mom for further support.

As school psychologists, we may seem to be primarily responsible for the appropriate education of special education students. However, we need to be mindful of the resources and tools that will lead to the proper instruction of ALL students. Investigate the McKinney-Vento act, find out who your district's liaison is, and refer families. You never know who might be in need. 

Here is the full text of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Asisstance Act, for those ambitious folks out there.

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