Brenda C. can ill-afford to pay for her daughter’s daily bus fare to and from Hope Valley Elementary School in Durham, NC. Diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1999 at age 37, Brenda was forced to stop working as a thrift store clerk in May 2001 after aggressive medical treatments took their toll on her body. “The radiation left a hole in my bladder,” says Brenda, explaining she could “no longer hold [her] water.” As a result, the longtime Durham resident was outfitted with a urine bag to perform the natural function her body no longer could. Even with the help of a home health care nurse three times a week, her husband, a certified nursing assistant, found the demanding task of cleaning, caring for and lifting his weak, sickly wife to be overwhelming. “He lost his job eight months after I left mine.”
That’s not all they lost. Heavily in debt, the family of three was put out of their apartment in August 2002. They stayed with relatives for a stint before arriving at Genesis Home – a well-run transitional housing shelter for Durham families – in February 2003. Since then, Brenda has fought to regain her health as her husband has struggled to reclaim a career. But most importantly, notes Brenda, the two have worked toward once again providing a stable home where their 12-year-old daughter can get a “fair chance at an education.” She acknowledges the relatively costly process of using a significant portion of what little public assistance she receives to pay for her daughter’s and husband’s daily bus fare to and from school and work. “You couldn’t have told me five years ago that I would have ended up in this situation,” she admits. “I would not have believed it.”
Brenda and her family are far from alone. Across the nation, an increasing number of families without homes are trying to provide or maintain a relatively stable educational setting for their children. It is reported that there are roughly 3.5 million homeless people in the United States. An estimated 40 percent of this figure is made up of homeless families. Close to 26 percent are children under the age of 18.
The obstacles involved in educating homeless children are numerous. Homeless families often move from place to place, making it hard for their children to regularly attend school or even follow through with important paperwork requirements like school records transfers and immunization documentation. Many families simply lack the money for transportation to and from school. And for school districts, identifying homeless children is a daunting task – especially given the recently expanded definition of the term homeless to include those living in parks, motels, and doubled-up with relatives or extended family. “Distinguishing who is homeless and who is not is very difficult,” says Josh Diem, a homeless advocate and doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina. “You can’t just pick them out of a crowd.”
Such dilemmas result in frequent absences and poor academic performance, which in turn increase the likelihood these kids will continue the cycle of poverty and homelessness as adults. A prominent 1993 study by the national advocacy group, Homes for the Homeless, revealed that homeless children were nine times more likely to repeat a grade, and four times more likely to drop out of school.
To combat this, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act became federal law in 1987. Title VII of the act mandated that the country’s school districts meet the educational needs of homeless children. The law stipulates that all public schools promote the equality and stability of homeless students by allowing them to stay in their schools of origin regardless of subsequent moves or relocation; by providing school transportation, supplies and meals to those who can’t afford it; and by enrolling kids immediately, regardless of missing documentation.
Unfortunately, this is largely an unfunded mandate. Districts apply for small, competitive federal grants to fund their individual programs, a process that contributes to huge disparities in the way school districts implement and comply with the law’s provisions. For example, a city like Milwaukee, WI, is commonly touted as a “best practice” model for the aggressive method in which its school system identifies and serves homeless children, while New York’s Suffolk County school districts have been the target of recent non-compliance suits.
Even so, some believe the money issue is secondary. “It’s really an equal access law,” says Barbara Duffield, Legislative Chair of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. After acknowledging the inadequacy of current funding levels, Duffield clarifies that the law “ensures homeless kids are getting access” to a stable educational environment and “everything other students are getting.” The best programs, she says, have diversified portfolios. “They are aggressive in seeking out federal monies but also have established other methods of funding.”
For homeless education advocates, the larger point is clear, even as they continue hoping and pushing for additional funding. Any society should ultimately be measured by the way it treats its most vulnerable members. “It’s more than just providing a service to someone in need,” says Carolyn Parkinson, the homeless liaison for Milwaukee Public Schools. Acknowledging the cliché with a laugh, Parkinson stresses that “education is the key to success and with it, doors open. By educating homeless children, we can effect larger change not just for them, their families and the community, but for generations to come.”
Many generations were affected by the unfriendly social policies of the 1980s, which prompted a substantial increase in those regarded as “vulnerable.” Social service cutbacks, welfare reform and anti-labor practices were integral parts of a conservative agenda aimed at shrinking the role of government and the number of people it served. The impact of such policies was largely represented by the swelling numbers of homeless families and children toward the middle and latter part of the decade.
The 1987 passage of McKinney-Vento was designed to address this burgeoning crisis. Provisions were included to ensure homeless children enjoyed the same right to a free and public education as their peers. In addition, each state was authorized to collect data on its homeless children and come up with an appropriate plan for their education.
Three years later, upon reviewing this data, Congress strengthened the act by requiring states to eliminate any remaining barriers to homeless student enrollment. It also began promoting academic excellence over mere enrollment, and allowed McKinney funds to be used for such direct educational services as tutorials and before- and after-school programs. In 1994 preschool services were added to the act. McKinney-Vento was most recently reauthorized two years ago under the No Child Left Behind Act.
Some districts have been more effective at implementing the law than others. In Suffolk County, NY, a federal class action lawsuit is claiming that 13 school districts are violating the act by refusing to accept and educate homeless children “simply because they are homeless.” The suit, filed by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) and the Long Island Advocacy Center in February, charges that these districts cited a lack of residency when refusing the enrollment of homeless children on public assistance. “Our organization had been monitoring the situation in Suffolk County for a while,” says Joy Moses, an education staff attorney for NLCHP. The attorney says the center had been getting numerous reports from folks “on the ground” in New York that homeless students were being denied enrollment and services. Through this suit, continues Moses, “we are hoping to garner better services for homeless students in Suffolk. But we’re also seeking to ensure [that] school districts, the county and the state of New York inform parents and students of their rights under McKinney-Vento, as well as provide effective training for their employees.”
In Milwaukee, the atmosphere surrounding McKinney-Vento is much different. “We’re getting the word out any way we can,” says Parkinson, emphasizing the creative ways the school system raises funds and identifies homeless children for services. Given that Milwaukee is a large metropolitan area, aggressive community outreach is a necessity. The school system has planned partnerships with local radio stations and corporations to raise money for school supplies for those who can’t afford them. Parkinson has coordinated community information sessions at schools, shelters, the legislature and “any other relevant group that will listen.” She stresses the importance of the system’s communication links with area shelters, community-based groups, social service providers and even the local press. Parkinson has done TV and radio spots to educate people on McKinney-Vento’s provisions and to match them with homeless youth. The needs of over 2,000 homeless kids – including transportation, meals and extracurricular programs – are currently being managed by Milwaukee Public Schools. “The more people who know,” says Parkinson, “the more calls we get and the more kids we can ID for services.”
Things are starting to look up for Brenda and her family. She has now been in remission from cancer for several years and she is stronger and mostly self-sufficient once again. Her husband recently found a new job that he is currently in training for. And their daughter – after someone in the school system heard of her plight – now has a school bus pick her up from her shelter to take her to and from Hope Valley Elementary each day. Even better for her daughter – especially given her fledgling self-esteem – is the fact that the driver picks her up first and drops her off last. “And that’s good,” says Brenda, acknowledging that kids her daughter’s age can sometimes get “mean with their teasing. At this point, it’s probably best they don’t know where she lives.”
But Brenda has learned it is best for her to know her daughter’s rights as they pertain to McKinney-Vento. Before the school bus began picking her daughter up, Brenda was unaware that she could have requested such services at any time. She has vowed to become more aware of laws like McKinney-Vento that affect her daily. Her friend and shelter-mate, Amelia, backs her up. “A lot of parents don’t have a clue as to what services are out there,” says Amelia. The working single mom – she came to Genesis in December because she couldn’t afford to pay for decent child care and an apartment at the same time – is currently talking to a homeless liaison for Durham Public Schools, to locate a school that best serves her soon-to-be-school-age son.
Hopefully, more parents who, like Brenda and Amelia, find themselves in transitional situations will become aware and empowered to advocate for their children. To aid in this process, advocacy groups like Duffield’s National Association for the Education of Children and Youth are currently pushing Congress to appropriate more money for McKinney-Vento in 2005. Citing ongoing “budget crunches,” Duffield points out that this increased allocation is far from a given.
Even so, one can only hope that Brenda’s closing prognosis for her family’s condition reflects future support for McKinney-Vento, as well as the plight of the homeless in general. “It can be discouraging at times,” admits Brenda. “But it will get better. I know it will.”