“The federal government defines homeless children as those lacking a fixed, regular, and adequate night time residence to include those living in shelters, transitional housing, cars, campgrounds, motels, or sharing temporary housing with others.”
I recently accepted a consulting position as a school homeless liaison (update: I didn’t take the promotion as it wasn’t my calling. I did, however, work with the staff and residents to help them find a candidate.) for homeless and foster kids. The gist of this position is “Initiate and coordinate local efforts that bring communities together to help homeless families regain their housing, their independence, and their dignity.” The question that I am asked the most is “How do I help the homeless child in my classroom?” These are the moments I wish I had multiples of me, as I would like to sit down with these concerned people one on one and answer the question- I know they differ slightly per community. Though, then again, the world having one of me is enough! Therefore, I share with them this article (To succeed in school, you need a home by Stephen Norman, Susan Enfield and Mark Okazaki) That gives a firsthand account of a homeless student and the following bullet points of a lecture I have given on the topic. I am the first to admit it won’t yield to a simple solution. It requires an integrated approach that reaches beyond immediate needs.
Know the rights of homeless children: All staff needs to be aware of the federal law and state policies starting with The McKinney-Vento Act. Renewed in 2002 as part of No Child Left Behind, McKinney-Vento allows students to enroll immediately in school without proof of residency or other paperwork.
Provide transportation: Having this transportation in place so that highly mobile students can stay in the same school—a place of familiar faces and constancy in a shifting personal landscape is a blessing of stability in what may be an otherwise chaotic life. Arrange for children to be able to attend the school of origin if in the student’s best interest. Setup bus stops to pick up kids at the shelter first and drop them off last, to ease the embarrassment of living at the shelters.
Know the local community: Make standard forms and information available about key school programs at each shelter. This includes materials on the school calendar, lunch, and breakfast programs, and admission/withdrawal. This way, you are in a position to make referrals for the family in areas like housing, food, clothing, and counseling.
Treat them the way you want to be treated: Don’t bring any special attention to their homeless condition. Assist parents in filling out forms. Be sensitive that some may lack skills to do them. Discuss privately with the student what accommodations exist for doing homework and make necessary arrangements or adjustments. Tutoring can also provide an opportunity for supportive counseling.