Unwrapping a Basic Understanding of Child Homelessness

Originally Posted on Act Locally Waco Community Blog, January 26, 2014.

The previous months welcomed the annual holiday season. Some of us spent time unwrapping gifts with high anticipation for what would be revealed underneath the glitter and flashy paper. In one of our previous posts we talked about the rise of homelessness among a few specific demographic groups. Today we will start to “unwrap” one of those groups as we learn a bit more about homelessness among children. The Charles A. Dana Center of The University of Texas reports that “over a course of a year, between 2.3 and 3.5 million people will experience homelessness in the United States, of which between 900,000 and 1.4 million will be children.”

Unfortunately, any conversation about homelessness must depend on ranges or estimates. As you might imagine, the very nature of homelessness makes it difficult to accurately count the people who are experiencing that situation. It is particularly challenging to get an accurate count of our homeless children and youth because the federal definition of “homelessness” as it applies to children is quite complex.

Children are considered homeless if they:

  • Are abandoned in hospitals.
  • Are awaiting foster-care placement.
  • Are living in environments not intended for habitation such as cars, parks, motels, public spaces, train stations.
  • Are living in substandard housing.
  • Are living in transitional housing.
  • Are sharing housing of others because of loss of housing, economic hardship.
  • Are displaced by a natural disaster.
  • Are fleeing a domestic abuse situation.
  • Are living temporarily with a relative in another town because a parent is hospitalized for illness or surgery.
  • Are immigrant students living in a homeless situation, without regard to whether they are in the US legally or illegally.

As you can see, child homelessness is more difficult to define than it might at first appear. This makes it even more difficult to observe. For example, a third grade student in WISD might technically have a roof over her head for the night, yet still suffer from inadequate housing. She would not be counted in a “point in time” count of those living on the street, but she is still considered homeless by the federal definition. Despite this complicated definition, thanks to the diligent work of the Homeless Outreach Services at WISD and the City of Waco we are able to estimate the number of homeless children in Waco ISD. That number, according to a May 2013 report by KXXV news is right around 1,500.

This definition of child homelessness is codified in a law called the McKinny-Vento Act. This law provides protections to youth that fall under the definition of homelessness and who are 21 and under (or until high school graduation in some states). Each school district is required by law to have a McKinny-Vento specialist available on staff to serve, protect and preserve the rights of homeless students. The specialist’s duties include:

  • Identification of homeless children.
  • Ensuring that homeless children enroll in and have a fair opportunity to succeed in school.
  • Making referrals to health care, dental, mental health and other appropriate services.
  • Informing parents and guardians of the educational and related opportunities available to their children and provide them with meaningful opportunities to participate in that education.
  • Disseminating public notice of educational rights.
  • Informing families and youth about transportation services and assisting them in accessing transportation.

The McKinny-Vento specialist for Waco ISD is Cheryl Pooler. She shared some insights about her work in a 2013 interview with KWBU. In the interview, Ms. Pooler described the difficulty of the first duty of her post: simply identifying students who may be eligible for programs.

National, state and local realities compel policy such as the McKinny-Vento Act which broadens the definition of homelessness among youth. This is important because homelessness is a complex issue that cannot be addressed without definitions and policies that are flexible enough to meet the complexity. But with complexity comes bureaucracy, including the documentation obstacles Ms. Pooler described in her interview.

The McKinny-Vento Act is not a simple piece of legislation. The definition of homelessness for children is not simple. Even the most basic task of figuring out how many homeless children we have in Waco is not simple. Perhaps we should let all of this legal complexity serve to remind us that life as a homeless child is certainly not simple. Consider for a moment how difficult it would be for a child experiencing any of the situations enumerated in the federal definition of homelessness to focus on school work.

“Unwrapping” the challenge of child homelessness is not a simple endeavor. Much more remains to be unwrapped. We will continue to unwrap homelessness, understand its scope and the policies around it in future posts.

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