Jenean F. and her husband worked hard to achieve the increasingly elusive American Dream. She was a stay at home mom and he worked as a salesman in the auto industry, affording them a measure of middle class stability in the heart of the Midwest.
They rented their home in an upper income working-class neighborhood in Fort Wayne, Indiana. They thought the future was set for them and their children.
But they lived on a tighter margin than they realized, making them financially vulnerable to any misfortune.
That misfortune came in the fall of 2010, when Jenean’s husband lost his six-figure job.
It was the most devastating period of their lives. It also spawned a fierce advocate.
As Congress plays politics with President Obama’s final budget, left waiting is a proposed $2.66 billion for the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants, an 18 percent increase from last year.
The programs made possible by the McKinney-Vento act are no stranger to housing and anti-poverty advocates and educators, but the law is hardly known to the rest of the country, even those who are directly helped by it.
So it was for Jenean. The mom of four who never had need to consider the ins and outs of federal housing policy had never heard of this Reagan-era legislation that ensures educational access and stability to homeless students.
She didn’t know that the act, passed in 1987, provides emergency or transitional housing, education, counseling, and transportation to homeless students. And she most definitely didn’t realize the act is the first–and only–major federal policy response to homelessness. (President Obama has proposed a plan in his final budget that calls for $11 billion in funding over the next decade to address family homelessness, but the House says it won’t hear the budget.)
Jenean didn’t know any of this until her eldest school-aged daughter was one of 16,000 Indiana homeless students during the 2013 school year. The state had seen an 81 percent increase in the number of homeless students from 2008 to 2013.
Indiana's numbers mirror a staggering explosion nationwide in the number of homeless students. More than 1.3 million public school children were homeless in 2013—double the number in 2006, says the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.
Today, Jenean (who asked that her last name and the names of her family members not be used) navigates the byzantine rules of the federal legislation like a veteran ship captain.
Her family’s seemingly solid middle-class life fell apart in October 2010 after her husband suffered a mild heart attack. He returned to work a few days later, but hit his head on a piece of equipment. The injury was severe enough to cause long-term disability, and he lost his job. The family couldn’t afford marketplace health insurance. The couple had two daughters, and Jenean was pregnant with twins.
State-funded insurance covered the girls and Jenean because she was pregnant. The family received food stamps to help make ends meet, but it wasn’t enough. Jenean became an extreme couponer, and the family sold their clothes, jewelry, electronics, toys, books, and whatever else they could do without. They burned through retirement savings. They maxed out their credit cards.
Not long after the twins’ birth, Jenean’s husband began moving around the state, chasing temp jobs that paid the state minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, and sending money home. But by August 2013, they couldn’t afford to pay rent, so Jenean and the children moved into her parent’s home.
Her parents lived in an affluent suburb where her oldest child would begin fifth grade, but officials at the zoned school denied her enrollment because the family was not living in the home permanently.
A state case manager who worked with the family as they navigated available government resources informed Jenean of the McKinney-Vento act. She researched it and learned that it contained provisions that allowed her daughter to attend the new school. Armed with newfound knowledge, Jenean met repeatedly with school officials to advocate for her daughter. The school relented 27 schools days after the first day of class.
Though Jenean's school battle resulted in victory, the upheaval for her daughter proved to be stressful, and she finished the first quarter with D's.
A dispute with her parents forced Jenean and the children to move out of their home and into a shelter near downtown Fort Wayne in late 2013, and McKinney-Vento continued to prove its worth. The act allowed the oldest daughter to continue attending the same school rather than switch to another district. The stability enabled her daughter to finish the school year on the honor roll, and two years later she is still there.
The family stayed in the shelter for four months, then moved to a transitional home in southeast Fort Wayne where they still live and are regaining their footing. Jenean has a certified nursing assistant license and works as an administrative assistant at an engineering firm. Her husband found full-time work in the auto industry. They’ve reduced their debt—down to about $12,000 from over $20,000—paying off medical bills, credit cards, and overdue utility bills. The couple has even discussed buying a small home within two years.
Jenean now works with the local neighborhood association to address the food desert that is southeast Fort Wayne—the closest grocery stores are 2 and 3 miles away—a difficult trip without a car, and next to impossible via the limited public transportation system.
McKinney-Vento continues to provide support for their school-aged children—the second child is now attending the same school as her big sister.
It also is being called on to support more children in the U.S. than ever before, and according to staff at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, the hope is that—given the current homelessness crisis among children and teens—the subcommittees and Congress will fully fund it.
Jenean will be watching.
Photo credit: Richard Crook, via flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)