In Plain Sight: Supporting Students Who Are Homeless

Homelessness is on the rise among students. With help, these kids can find their potential.

Illustration by Scott Bakal

Dylan Chidick was accepted to 18 colleges last spring. The Jersey City, NJ, teen became a local news celebrity not only because of his application success, but because he was homeless at one point during his time at Henry Snyder High School. Stories were written, the governor called to congratulate him.

Chidick was not the only feel-good story of a homeless or once-homeless student succeeding “against all odds” that circulated across the country during graduation season. But these stories are only celebratory on the surface. They are as indicative of systematic failures in resources as they are of individual success. They also spread a view of homeless kids that Chidick would like to end.

Being homeless often brings judgment; it changes people’s perceptions and treatment of others. Those factors are among the many that keep students like Chidick and their families from revealing their situation to school staff.

“I was embarrassed,” he says. “I didn’t want anybody to know. There’s such a stigma around the word homelessness. You hear that, and people change the way they think about you. So I hid it.”

Chidick is not unique in keeping that fact to himself. One of the biggest challenges facing educators trying to support homeless students is knowing that they are homeless.

“It’s super underreported,” says Susan Austin, superintendent of schools for a district covering North Berwick, Berwick, and Lebanon, ME (serving about 3,200 students), and the district’s homeless liaison. “It’s one of those things that people don’t talk about a lot, but it’s everywhere. I’ve seen it in every community. It doesn’t matter what the socioeconomics are. It’s just one of those things that is hidden, a right-in-front-of-your-face hidden thing.”

Chidick with Grecia Montero, director of admissions at The College of New Jersey, who paid a surprise visit to Chidick’s high school with his acceptance letter to the college.
Photo by Lauren H. Adams/courtesy of TCNJ
 

The number of homeless students is rising across the country. In Chidick’s home state of New Jersey, homelessness among students has grown more than in any other state over the last three years, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics—which reported nearly 1.4 million homeless students in public schools in the 2016–17 school year. According to a report published in January by the National Center for Homeless Education, the number of K–12 students without homes has increased 70 percent in the last decade. Their research also showed that it is not going decrease any time soon.

Challenges facing these students may seem insurmountable for individual educators, who can’t provide affordable housing that doesn’t exist, guarantee timely and needed transportation, properly teach when kids are in and out of schools because they are forced to move frequently, or be charged with handling a student’s lack of stability in their home life while also providing them with an adequate education.

But across the country, educators are finding some success in supporting these students and families. The keys, they say, are offering enough support at school for all students, partnering with community organizations, and being willing to get creative when necessary.

“Homeless” does not necessarily mean living on the streets. For school federal aid purposes, it is defined as any child who lacks a fixed, regular, and “adequate nighttime residence,” whose primary residence is a shelter or temporary living accommodation, who lives in substandard housing, or who may imminently lose housing without subsequent housing available.

The 1987 McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act is a federal law that ensures homeless children are given equal opportunity regarding public education and provides funding for schools to support these students and families.

In the day-to-day struggle of these students, however, definitions and acts of Congress don’t matter as much as how they are treated by school staff and peers.

They already feel like outcasts and are embarrassed, says Chidick. Public displays of charity don’t help, nor does it help when others act as if being homeless is a defining characteristic.

“[Educators] should basically treat them the same and know that the thing that they’re going through right now does not define them,” he says.

Still, some accommodations may be needed. After all, these students are not living under ideal conditions for learning. They are stressed, tired, likely hungry, and trying to hide their situation. They may find themselves at different schools throughout the year. During all of this, these young people face the same inherent challenges of growing up that their peers do.

Chidick, whose family was pushed into homelessness because of large medical bills, says his school was very supportive once they knew his circumstances. He was taking AP classes at the time, and when he finally acknowledged his situation to his teachers, he received extra time for some assignments. It’s important, he says, for educators to remember that these students are the same people, with the same potential, they were before.

“Homeless kids are treated more like they’re breakable or emotionally unstable. That’s how I felt, like we’re not able to be productive students,” he says. “That’s not the case. That wasn’t true before; it’s not going to change who we are after.”

Kate Eads, librarian at Northgate Elementary School in Seattle, has worked to support the homeless students in her area in various ways, including running a book drive for a local shelter. She agrees with Chidick’s assessment of how those in schools see these children.

“I believe students who are currently homeless, and known to be, are missing the respect of being seen as growing humans and global citizens,” she says. “If we continue to see these students from a ‘damage-centered’ perspective, as Eve Tuck coined, we cannot see—and support—their multidimensional possibilities.”

The families also face judgment from educators, one reason they are not quick to share their status. Eads had to admit to her assumptions and judgments and then change her thinking.

“I learned to stop blaming parents,” she says. “Students who are experiencing homelessness are deeply loved by their families, who are doing the best they can in their situation. There are many reasons for homelessness. My judgment has no place in a child’s life.”

Staff from Lincoln—a California Alliance of Child and Family Services (CACFS) member organization—
works with kids from Oakland, CA, public schools.
Photos courtesy of CACFS


In many cases, school provides stability for these children. It is the one constant they can count on. The best solutions to assist them are ideas and programs that better serve all the students in a school. That includes building trust and relationships with students; teachers and staff being aware of the signs of homelessness or any struggle, such as hunger, being overly tired, and extreme changes in mood or behavior; and being willing to take the next step and report it to someone who has the resources to help.

“Everything’s about relationships,” Austin says. “Building relationships is the most important thing we can do with our kids and our families. Sometimes the rules get in the way. I just feel like it’s kindness and compassion and what’s the right thing to do to help people through these struggles.”

That can be difficult for educators and administrators who like established, singular responses and sticking by hard-and-fast rules.

“There’s no real answer that encompasses everything, and I think people struggle with not having a ready answer,” says Austin. “And people get really hung up on the rules and making sure that everybody gets treated, in their word, ‘fairly.’ What are we going to do for this child that we wouldn’t do for every child? Well, guess what? Fair’s not always equal, and equal’s not always fair, so you have to look at each kid’s circumstances and make it work.”

Eads tries to take the same approach for all her students, knowing that she can’t “spot” a student who is currently homeless and what she would do to support them will also benefit her other students.

“I can go months or years before someone mentions a student is living at a local shelter, or in their car, or on a friend’s couch,” she says. “So in order to meet the needs of students who are experiencing homelessness, such as offering weekend food bags and not asking for book fines, I use the same procedures for all students. If I teach and provide a safe space from a foundation of love, and treat every child in my life as one with multidimensional positive possibilities, and continue to advocate for school-community relationships in order to provide wraparound services, all my students benefit.”

Educators must start questioning their expectations, she adds.

“For a lot of the kids that are housing insecure, their backpack is their life,” says Eads. “We assume our kids have a dry warm shelf to put their things on and [can] charge the batteries of their devices.”

Keeping schools open later and offering more after-school programs is important, Chidick says.

“If schools had more after-school activities, it would help the students focus and have a purpose,” he says. “It’ll make the students work harder and be more motivated and keep them off the streets.”

While staying open to allow kids a place to do their homework and have Internet access, schools can offer other resources as well—even if they cite budgets and other factors that make it impossible, says Chris Stoner-Mertz. She is the executive director of the California Alliance of Child and Family Services (CACFS), which acts as the collective voice for its member organizations that advocate for children and families and for advancing policy on behalf of those organizations. The CACFS member groups partner with schools throughout the state to help them fund and run programs and provide resources.

“There are some pretty basic things that schools, and also schools in partnership with community organizations, can do,” Stoner-Mertz says.

Connections to local organizations are a big piece of the puzzle for supporting students, says Stoner-Mertz. The organizations know what’s available to families—“everything from how to get bus tickets to who are the housing organizations, how to get families in touch with social services if it’s about getting food and other services”—and can provide the staff, expertise, and money school districts are lacking.

“Community-based providers have the capacity to blend different kinds of funding, whether it’s getting foundation grants, funds through McKinney-Vento,” she says. “They can create an array of services and support that can meet the needs of the families.”

It may take a little work to find the best system for collaboration, but it is worth the effort—and not only for the students.

“Teachers need to be able to teach, and often they’re asked to do five million other things in addition,” says Stoner-Mertz. “I think the more that organizations work together, not by
stepping on each other’s toes but by really creating these partner­ships about how we can all help, the more they can successfully do that.”


One Friday afternoon in October 2017, two students came to talk to Susan Austin within a half hour of each other. Both were alone, and neither had a place to stay that night.

Austin scrambled and found them housing but spent all weekend thinking about the problem. While her region faces some longstanding economic issues that bring housing insecurity to families, the opioid crisis has created something else—children who are now on their own.

“We can provide food, we can provide clothing, I can provide medical treatment—we have a health center in our school —but I couldn’t give somebody a safe place to be that night without stress,” she says. “It was that ‘aha’ moment. What the heck? Why can’t we fix this?”

The district already had host families who take in kids in emergency situations, but that was not a viable long-term solution. On the way to school Monday morning, Austin saw a large house for sale. It belonged to a prominent family she knew in the area. So she took a shot and reached out to them. By January 2018, a nonprofit was created, the Ryan Home Project, with Austin at the helm. This fall the Ryan Home will open to as many as six area students in need of housing. A grant provided funds to hire staff. It is separate from the district, taking away liability issues or arguments about funding.

The Phoenix Hall in Chicago offers a similar housing option for students experiencing homelessness.

“For a long time I just waited for somebody else to do something, and the reality of that is unless you do something, nobody is going to take that first step,” Austin says. “I think any community can do something like this. It doesn’t have to look the same everywhere. You just have to start small and help one kid at a time.”


Kara Yorio is SLJ’s news editor.

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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