Daily, I interact with children, youth and families who have become homeless for various reasons: running away from home, domestic violence, natural disasters, death of a parent, and many other reasons. Their stories are similar, but the family dynamics and resources are usually very different from one student to the next: one student may require an abundance of support, encouragement, and/or motivation, whereas another may not.
Regardless of how students become homeless, and the trauma it brings, they are expected to be prepared to learn and attend school each day. This can be realistic for some, but it is unrealistic for many.
Where does the disconnect between homelessness and educational success exist?
I believe that it exists economically, financially, environmentally, morally, socially, and culturally, because many teachers do not live in poverty, and have not experienced it.
Teachers arrive at work prepared to teach students who may seem to be prepared to learn. But how prepared can students be when they are living under stressful housing conditions? How likely are educators to understand and/or relate to the residual effects of homelessness, such as anger, anxiety, hunger, trauma, abuse, poor attendance, questionable social skills, aggression, hopelessness, depression, violence (toward adults and peers), grief, school phobias, and the list goes on? All of these ill effects of homelessness are a perfect recipe for potential failure.
I ask, “How likely are teachers to understand,” because there was a time in my career that I did not “get it.” I remember conducting my first announced home visit in a highly impoverished area of New Orleans. I was face-to-face with poverty, and I hated it! I had no idea that living conditions such as these existed in the United States. It was a cultural shock.
As I entered the family’s home, things were neat but dingy. There was an electric skillet on in the living room. A small child moved freely throughout the house. Beds were neatly made with visibly dirty linen. A rug I stepped onto covered a large hole in the floor to keep outside elements out. Open cans were in the refrigerator and freezer containing uneaten food, and buckets on the floor captured water from the rain. Then, there was the mom—physically present but profoundly absent from years of substance abuse. Each time I sought mom’s input she looked to the 13-year-old to provide answers. I did not see that coming. All I wanted to know was why the 8-year-old had been attending school in wet clothing. That day, I found out why. He was hand-washing his clothes in a tub at night without enough time for them to dry by morning. The family did not own a washer or dryer.
Incidentally, before I met that family and a host of others, my plan was to change the entire community. I was going to introduce them to my world, or so I thought. Then, a light bulb illuminated my mind’s eye. I began to see these families through a more transparent lens. I saw people that resembled me, but were different. They lacked basic necessities, and they required assistance. I could be the doctor and help heal, or the judge and give a life sentence. Purposefully, I choose to make meaningful deposits into all whom I encounter. It is a lifestyle choice.
If we, the professionals, truly intend to create change, we have to change.
Homelessness is not a one-size-fits-all situation. We cannot continue to serve families using our assumptions. Ask what families and youth need by conducting a needs assessment. Include families in creating their plan, and then assist them accordingly to the plan. Don’t hand a person food when they really need access to a computer lab to compose their resume. Not every homeless person is hungry. Manage families with sensitivity and respect; reflect what you expect.
In order to help meet individual student needs, the Students-In-Transition Team devised a tracking system in 2016, using “red dots” to alert us when follow-up was needed with students with unique housing challenges. Those were cases we monitored closely in an effort to prevent them from falling through the cracks. Our goal was to keep them on our educational radar.
The red dot means the following is required: intervention, referrals, follow-through, monitoring, outcomes, and follow-up.
Such cases usually consist of students who:
- have never attended school (the oldest was 15)
- have been hot-lined for neglect or abuse
- are at risk of dropping out
- are highly mobile
- are being enrolled by a non-custodial adult
- have frequent hospitalizations
- present with sex-trafficking risk factors
- have multiple disciplinary infractions, and
- have other red flags
We want the best for our students.
Collectively, closure cannot be achieved until we have documented that closure has been achieved. For example, we had a family seeking registration but declining to provide a physical address. Initially, it seemed mom was being difficult, secretive, elusive, and out-right combative. Well, she was – because they did not have a traditional address. So, mom did not feel a need to disclose. She felt that her housing status was personal and none of the school’s business. Unfortunately, how our students are living is the school’s business. All school personnel are deemed a “mandated reporter.” It is our duty to ensure that children are safe. A “Hot Line” call was made to Child Protective Services. They were able to locate mom in her car at the address she provided. Mom and her two children were in fact living in their car at a friend’s address. The friend only provided use of the restroom. Mom had issues with substance abuse.
However, we continued to explore ways to assist and address the needs identified via our needs assessment form. Once mom realized we were not “policing” her and were genuinely seeking ways to move them from homelessness, the walls of resistance immediately came down. She began to disclose her challenges with substance abuse and immediate need for food and housing. My team jumped into action and kept mom informed of every step of intervention, referrals, etc. The family was in-taken to a local drug treatment program with a housing component for both her and her children. The family was eventually moved into a two-year transitional housing program. The students successfully completed the 2016-2017 school year. This year, the students were enrolled but started school a week late. They withdrew and reportedly moved to Texas. To confirm their move, we verified whether a request for records was made; and it was.
Often, I remind my team, “it is not what they (those you encounter) call you but what you answer to.” Do not answer to anything that is counter-productive. Countless times, we embrace behavior rather than need. So, at Saint Louis Public Schools (SLPS), I encourage my staff to put on their super cool shades; change lenses; look past the hurt, pain, suffering, behavior and/or anger of the people we serve; and imagine them without challenging behavior. That way, they are able to get a panoramic view of the huge sign that reads “HELP; I NEED your assistance”; or “SAVE ME, I cannot get through this without YOUR SUPPORT” because time and chance happens to us all. It just happened to be their turn. I always say, “Keep living; you might get your turn.” I never imagined ever becoming homeless but I was.
Since 2010, homelessness in St. Louis Public Schools has increased dramatically – over 200%. I am sure the increase had a lot to do with the McKinney-Vento workshops that I conducted both locally and nationally.
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act was initially signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, July 22, 1987. It has been reauthorized several times since; and most recently reauthorized in 2015 by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The law ensures educational rights and protections for children and youth experiencing homelessness. Homeless students often face unique barriers when accessing educational programs; however, school districts must immediately enroll them. It’s the law!
At SLPS, we treat each family and student according to their unique needs, and strive to help our education professionals – teachers, administrators, all who are in contact with students – to understand the challenges these students face. Literally, they fight a daily battle.
About Deidra Thomas-Murray: Deidra manages Saint Louis Public Schools Students-in-Transition Office as the Homeless and Foster Care Liaison. She is a Licensed Master Social Worker; Lifetime Qualified School Social Worker; Foster Parent, Family Divorce and Civil Mediator; a former New Orleans Reserved Sheriff and United States Army Reservist; national speaker; and a New Orleans native who arrived in St. Louis homeless by way of Hurricane Katrina.