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Increasing Need for Homeless Student Services

17 November 2008 No Comment

Story by: Linsay Rousseau Burnett

With unemployment reaching new highs and the rate of foreclosures showing no sign of slowing, stability becomes a fleeting concept for families who find themselves out of work and out of a home. For children, this instability and impermanence could potentially jeopardize their education. Since 1987, a federal program has been in place to help assist these children and as their numbers rise, these services have become increasingly pertinent.

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act was put in place in 1987 to ensure that homeless children and youth have equal access to a free public education. According to Jan Steed, the McKinney-Vento coordinator for the Fremont Unified School District, homeless children are registered for the free breakfast and lunch program and receive free school materials, backpacks and PE uniforms.

“We try to ensure that the student has the same opportunities for things like field trips, school dances and sports teams, even if they don’t have the money for it” said Steed.

Along with financial assistance, Steed said the Act requires that school districts provide homeless students with free transportation to and from school.

Over the past year, Steed said she has seen a rise in the number of homeless students due to the foreclosure problems. The Tri-City Homeless Coalition has also observed this increase.

Louis Chicoine, the group’s executive director, said, “There has been a five to ten percent increase over the past year resulting from chronic housing problem and the nation’s economic state.”

As these numbers continue to grow, one of the most pressing concerns, according to Steed, is the reluctance of families to identify as homeless.

This is something that Toni Adams, the director of special programs for Alameda County, said she has been struggling with during her nine-and-a-half years in the position.

“People have to self-identify and people don’t always do that. We work with the shelters and the school districts and have posters there, but you can’t make people do what they don’t want to do,” said Adams.

Steed said that in her district, she is working with school administrators to create a relaxed environment where families do not feel afraid or ashamed to come forward and identify as being homeless. “We’re really decreasing the level of fear of humiliation and misunderstanding by saying that regardless of circumstance, ‘come on in,’” said Steed.

In establishing an open atmosphere, Pete Murchison, the principal at Irvington High School, said the best approach is one of anonymity. According to him, the majority of students, teachers and administrators do not know who the homeless students are.

“I see the paperwork, but I don’t really know them. I work best to support them as quietly as I can. It’s really about trying to pull all our forces together so that student can have as normal an experience as possible,” said Murchison.

For many of these students, being homeless can bring with it a myriad of problems, academically and emotionally. According to Amanda Carlson, the head counselor at Irvington, this is just what school counselors are trained for.

In dealing with homeless students, Carlson said that her main concern is the well-being of the student.

“There’s always going to be some anxiety on the part of the student. It’s hard to keep up with your studies if your worrying about your family, living in a shelter, have no private room or desk to get your work done,” she said.

Carlson said that, while the school counselors may not know who the specific homeless students are, they strive to reassure all the students that the counselors are a confidential source to turn to if help is needed.

“When we [counselors] do find out that a student is homeless, we become a sort of liaison for that student. We keep in contact with the district, we work with the homeless shelters and if there’s a parent, we try to maintain contact with them,” said Carlson.

Communication is a key component to the McKinney-Vento program. For her, Steed said communication means continuously training school staff, reaching out to the community and bringing awareness to the school district about the presence and needs of homeless students.

Steed went on to say that people need to realize that homelessness is unpredictable and not just chronic. Perhaps the harsh losses in this economic crisis will help de-stigmatize homelessness and show that it can happen to anyone.

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