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So We Thought. So We Fought. 20 Years of Homeless Student Education.

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Pack the bus
Courage mixed with outrage can create positive outcomes. When the mother of 3 school-age children came into my shelter office 20 years ago this week and asked for help getting her kids enrolled in their schools, I had no idea what she was starting.

My former life as a shelter director included fighting systems that oppressed those without homes. I felt the responsibility. After all, homeless shelters perpetuate the economic and systemic pressures that keep people down.

This mother, Tyeast, wasn’t asking for anything outrageous. A federal law, at the time called the McKinney Act, included provisions, albeit weak, to allow kids to stay in the school they attended when they became homeless. We found out how weak this law was in the subsequent months.

I contacted the school, but they were adamant. Her children were staying in a different district and needed to enroll in the school nearest the shelter. The quality of education was not the issue. It was stability. The kids’ lives had been upended enough by the trauma, and stigma, of moving into a shelter. Staying with their same friends, teachers and routines would be best. So we thought. So we fought.

When the school district sued the mother to keep the kids out, that took things to a higher level. We got an attorney to counter-sue. To court we all went. And we shared the story with the Chicagoland media, finding interest and behind-the-scenes sympathy.

In the 2 months of court activity, we learned a lot. This situation—the harm experienced by homeless kids uprooted due to homelessness had dreadful side effects, “A ‘rule of thumb’ is that it takes a child four to six months to recover academically after changing schools.” (Dr. Joy Rogers, Loyola University). The federal law was pathetically weak. Kids in this situation deserved better. So we naively set about getting a state law passed to strengthen the rights of homeless students. (The longer story, a fascinating one, is available in my book, Crossing the Line: Taking Steps to End Homelessness,and at this link).

In the 20 years since the passage of the Illinois Education for Homeless Children Act, many amazing things have happened. Over 10 years ago, the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act passed, and the federal law almost entirely mirrors our Illinois law. It clarified the responsibilities of schools to provide secure education to homeless children and youth. REACH, an 11-min video I made, explains the basics of the law and helps parents and youth in homeless situations advocate for their rights.

The back-to-school flurry is upon us. In every community, kids (and their parents) without homes and those without wherewithal (an estimated $635) struggle to get the stack of stuff required by their schools. Local efforts gallantly strive to help kids go to school prepared. My friend’s organization Operation Kid Equip, usually serves thousands of kids, making sure they’re well stocked for school. A disastrous flood destroyed most of their supplies a couple weeks ago, a big hit at a bad time.

Help is needed is to get word out to kids and their parents/guardians about this lifesaving law. Julianna, at the time mother of 4 school-age kids in the Phoenix area, had found herself unable to withstand the domestic violence. They needed to leave her abuser. But her kids made her promise 2 things: that she/they never return to him and that they didn’t have to change schools. The first promise was a no-brainer. The second, school stability, seemed daunting since the family was in the doubled-up mode of homelessness, bouncing from friend’s floors to other friends’ couches.

She lucked out, sharing her plight with a co-worker at her school who connected her with the district’s homeless liaison. When Julianna heard her kids could stay in their schools, get help with school supplies and transportation, and more, she felt her life had been saved. She would have likely ended up back in their violence-tainted home without the McKinney-Vento Act.

Over 1 million homeless school children/youth were identified last year. That doesn’t include parents, younger/older siblings, or those who haven’t appeared on the school’s radar screen. Shame, fear of losing their children, and ignorance of the law keeps too many kids out of school or in constant, unnecessary, motion.

Since it doesn’t appear we’re going to end homelessness anytime soon, the next best thing is to make sure the kids who are homeless get an education. Everyone can help:

  • Share the link to the free easy-to-understand REACH video;
  • Support back-to-school drives in your local community;
  • Watch and share the free 4-min trailer of My Own Four Walls,a potent 20-minute documentary featuring kids talking about homelessness and school (HEAR US, my organization); and
  • Advocate for social justice issues to ease the pain of families struggling to survive.

My life changed when Tyeast asked for help. Because of her courage, millions of kids experiencing homelessness would at least have a decent shot at getting an education.