The new school year begins next Monday (8/19/2013) and generous folks throughout our community are on board again with highly publicized back-to-school drives to supply disadvantaged children—including those who are homeless—with much-needed backpacks, books, stationery items, shoes and clothing.
But working quietly and mostly unrecognized behind the scenes, in what might be an even more important effort to help homeless children kick off the new school year, are the educational liaisons for homeless and foster children enrolled in our local school districts.
The McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act, our federal government’s legislative response to homelessness, safeguards the education-related rights of homeless children and those waiting to be placed in foster care. State legislation pertaining specifically to foster children--California Assembly Bill 490--safeguards those children’s education-related rights in a similar way. By law, every school district is mandated to have a Homeless Student Liaison (McKinney-Vento) as well as a Foster Student Liaison (CA AB490). In practice throughout Kern, these duties are often assigned to the same person in each district. Here we will focus on the rights of homeless children and the role of the Homeless Student Liaison, but will at times reference relevant information related to foster children.
The McKinney-Vento Act has been written to help remove or reduce obstacles to school attendance for homeless children. These obstacles include:
- Enrollment delays caused by requirements that include proof of residence, immunization records or other documents;
- The inability to afford required school uniforms or supplies;
- Lack of transportation to and from school;
- Frequent moves;
- Poor health and/or nutrition, and poor hygiene.
McKinney-Vento does this by affording homeless children certain education-related rights, such as:
- The right to immediate enrollment even without a permanent address, proof of residency, immunization records, school records or other normally required school documents;
- The right to stay in their school of origin (the school where they were enrolled when they became homeless) for the duration of their homelessness;
- The right to fully participate in all school programs and activities for which they are eligible;
- The right to transportation to and from school upon their parent’s request;
- The right to free or reduced price lunches and any other district food programs (no application or income documentation required).
“It’s rewarding to be able to help keep a child in the same school, to help them stay stable in their educational placement and know there is somewhere they can go for help,” said Suzanne Guest, Bakersfield City School District (BCSD) Liaison for Homeless and Foster Students. Stability in school placement and attendance are important because nearly all homeless families move at least once annually, and one-fifth of homeless families move three or more times each year, according to a PowerPoint presentation from the BCSD Student Services Department that can be downloaded by clicking here.
(Guest is a voting member of the Kern County Homeless Collaborative’s Steering Committee, which is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to involve local education representatives. She appears at right in the photo above, together with other members of her team: English/Spanish Bilingual Outreach Liaisons Dee Haro, left, and Julie Torres, middle. The photo was taken at Project Homeless Connect one-day resource fair in April 2012.)
McKinney-Vento Program Qualifying Criteria
- Live in an emergency or transitional shelter (family homeless shelter, domestic violence shelter, youth shelter, or transitional living program);
- Live in a hotel, motel, trailer park or campground due to lack of alternative adequate housing;
- Live in a house or apartment with more than one family due to economic hardship or loss;
- Live in a car, park, public space, abandoned building, or substandard housing, including a building without electricity, water or heat—in other words, any place that is not meant for human habitation;
- Are abandoned in a hospital;
- Are awaiting foster care placement or are in temporary foster care with an adult who is not a parent or guardian;
- Are migratory children living in any of the above conditions; or
- Are staying with friends or family as a runaway or unaccompanied youth.
By the Numbers: Local Homeless and Foster Students
*A side-by-side look at homeless and foster children in the
BCSD and KHSD
Total Number of Schools
Total Number of Students
Number of Homeless Children/Youth
Number of Foster Children/Youth
*Based on the latest information available from the last (2012-13) school year.
**More than 90% of this number represents children in families living “doubled up” with another family due to economic hardship such as job loss, foreclosure or eviction.
***This number is likely underreported.
Guest provided some thoughts about why the homeless-to-foster-student ratios for the BCSD and KHSD seem to be diametrically opposed.
"BCSD makes homeless students a very high priority because these students are a vulnerable population. It has a specific program of four people dedicated solely to work on identifying and assisting homeless and foster students. One of BCSD's Board Members, Andrae Gonzales, has made homeless students a priority and he himself works for a nonprofit organization that helps mentally ill homeless adults."
Gonzales is the Executive Director of Stewards, Inc., a member agency of the Kern County Homeless Collaborative, and one of two lead agencies in its SOAR effort to quickly link eligible homeless persons with mental health and substance use disorders to SSI and SSDI benefits.
Gonzales' passion for working with the homeless, Guest continued, has helped create a culture of awareness about homeless children from the BCSD Board down to her program and the individual schools.
"BCSD is getting better at identifying foster students, but we still have a way to go to improve in that area," Guest said.
(Some thoughts about the low homeless numbers in the Kern High School District will be provided by Guest's counterpart below.)
It is also important to highlight that the methodology used for counting homeless children in the annual Point-in-Time Homeless Census conducted by our Homeless Collaborative as a HUD requirement is different from that used by McKinney-Vento Programs. The numbers on homeless children yielded by the 2013 Homeless Count are as follows:
- Total children counted throughout Kern: 149 (revised)
Breakdown of the above figure:
- Children counted in shelters/transitional housing: 120 (revised)
- Unsheltered children counted in Metro Bakersfield: 21
- Unsheltered children counted in rural communities: 8
Bakersfield City School District
Guest said about three-fourths of the homeless children in her district come from households headed by a single parent--usually a mom. The great majority of BCSD homeless kids (more than 90 percent) are in families living doubled up due to economic hardship. Although only about two percent are living in hotels or motels, these are the ones that are of the most concern to Guest’s co-worker, BCSD McKinney-Vento Program Clerk Karen Luque.
“I don’t like to see the children in the Union Avenue motels. Small children and babies in strollers: They don’t need to be there. It makes you worry for these children,” Luque said, especially in light of the fact that Union Avenue hotels and motels are often used by sex workers and registered sex offenders.
Fortunately only two children in the entire district reported living without shelter last year, Guest said. About four percent reported living in an emergency homeless shelter or domestic violence shelter.
Louis Gill, CEO of KCHC member agencies Bakersfield Homeless Center and the Alliance Against Family Violence and Sexual Assault, which provide shelter to hundreds of homeless children each year, appreciates the role McKinney-Vento liaisons play in the scholastic success of homeless children.
“The chaos of homelessness is difficult for children and it almost always negatively affects their scholastic performance,” Gill said. “McKinney-Vento staff interact directly with the school district to help students through this difficult time. If additional services such as counseling are needed, they coordinate them.” He said the program also provides a math tutor to help children who are enrolled in Bakersfield Homeless Center’s after-school program, Champ Camp.
Guest’s team also helps homeless families with one-on-one visits, food referrals, furniture donations, transportation to doctors’ appointments, English-Spanish translation and more.
Kern High School District
Gail Johnson, a former teacher, has been the Foster and Homeless Youth Educational Liaison for the Kern County High School District for the last 10 years. She works at the district office in collaboration with teachers, counselors and administrators to make sure the district is meeting the needs of approximately 500 foster and 200 reported homeless youth—and the homeless numbers are most likely underreported, she said.
“It’s very difficult to get an accurate number because high school students are very hesitant to admit that they’re homeless,” Johnson said. “And homeless high school students couch surf with friends.”
Johnson helps KHSD employees at the various campuses spot the warning signs that a child is homeless:
- “They’re often very tired and might sleep in class,” she said. Homeless children might be sleep-deprived if they spent the night before in a place that was not safe. If they fall asleep in class, it’s because the classroom is a safe place to get some shuteye, she said.
- Continual wearing of the same clothes and a lack of hygiene (“dirty clothes, smelly clothes, dirty children”) is another sign that a student might be homeless.
- Failure to complete homework assignments, “and vague answers as to why the homework is not done,” as well as failing grades may also indicate that a child is homeless, according to Johnson.
So just how does a high school student become homeless? The causes for homelessness are many, but Johnson (in the photo at right) provided a hypothetical scenario:
“A child goes to school one morning and when she comes home that afternoon her mother has moved out leaving nothing in the apartment but her clothes. The child has two choices: call a friend and ask if she can stay with them, or report the situation to a school counselor. Should she choose not to report it to the school counselor, she will end up staying with friends.”
If a child reports that they are homeless due to abandonment, as in the above example, the school asks whether there is a family member or the family of a friend who will let them stay with them, Johnson said. If the child has no one, they go to the Jamison Children’s Center for abused or neglected children.
“We can’t have these children on the streets,” said Johnson, who is a member of Kern’s Domestic Violence Advisory Council. “It is not safe. Human trafficking is running right through Bakersfield.”
For additional information on educational assistance and support for homeless children, please call:
- Kern High School District – (661) 827-3100
- Bakersfield City School District Student Services – (661) 631-4910