Margaret Bernstein is correct in her commentary about homeless students this weekend, but she really never gave us anyway to make sure that no student has to sleep on the bleachers again. This should be obvious and in a society that can build casinos, shining cathedrals, and beautiful courthouses, we should never have a child sleeping outside. Unfortunately, there were very few solutions in Ms. Bernstein's commentary that would have prevented Boone from sleeping outside. Mentorships are great, having more scholarships are excellent, and lifting children out of poverty are needed, but none of those things would have paid for a place for Boone to have lived when his family dissolved. And by the way, it takes government funds and taxes to assure that every child has a quality education and a place to live. After all, the private sector is not going to provide a lease to someone 18 to 22 years old while hundreds of more attractive (on paper) tenants are applying for the apartments available in our community, and a child in high school under age 18 cannot sign a lease or contract. So, what do we do with unaccompanied youth who couch surf or sleep on bleachers in our community?
First, it has to be made clear that this is not an overwhelming problem. There are about 2,500 to 4,000 students who become homeless in the Cleveland Public Schools, but very few of those are not in contact with a parent or guardian. The schools found about 350 to 600 students spent sometime estranged from their family. The shelters and services only document a couple dozen youth in the same situation as David Boone. A small amount of funding could make a huge difference in the community. Here are some suggestions from NEOCH that would actually prevent students from falling all the way to the streets.
Boost the Project ACT program with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District
This is the Title I funded Homeless Children and Youth program for the Cleveland Schools. They work with teachers to make sure that the kids stay in school and can go to their school of origin if the family becomes homeless. They provide tutors and other help to keep the child from falling behind. Since teachers are typically the first in our community to recognize a problem, Project ACT is a cornerstone for recognizing and addressing the problem. Their mandate is to stabilize the child's education, and Project ACT does a fantastic job on getting a kid back into school within 24 hours after a family being identified as homeless. A couple of things we could do would be for the state to designate the Homeless Children and Youth projects in the 10 largest cities to become the regional authority for all the surrounding school districts. So, if a child from Orange School District or Parma School District becomes homeless the Cleveland Public Schools would handle their case and assure that they can return to their school of origin quickly. Instead of having to rely on the 33 districts in Cuyahoga County to do the right thing for the family, the Cleveland Schools should be in the lead and the other schools should follow their recommendations. CMSD has the largest staff and they deal with this issue everyday.
If we are serious about never having another David Boone sleep on bleachers, these Homeless Children and Youth Projects should be the lead in providing housing assistance to these school age children. They should take the lead as the advocate for the child/young adult on the best placement to stabilize their housing to assure they receive a quality education. They could negotiate between the juvenile justice, foster care system, families or friends to find them the best housing available. The student would be assigned an advocate who would help with these decisions, and it would be the responsibility of the advocate to make sure that the young person has a place to call home. This is going to involve some funding increases to hire advocates in the major cities in the school districts. Unless someone in our community is assigned this responsibility then it falls through the cracks. Unpaid mentors are great and a big benefit, but at the end of the day we need someone who would not rest until the young person has a stable place.
Educate the Suburban Schools
As part of "No Child Left Behind" and the McKinney Vento law every suburban school district (and charter school) is mandated to appoint a liaison for a child that becomes homeless. We have a list here. The problem is that these liaisons are not mandated any training or given any guidance on what they are supposed to do if they find a homeless child in their district. Who do they call? What do they need to do? All of these liaisons should be required to have state funded training about homelessness and their responsibilities to homeless children. A better system would be to provide training and have the major cities homeless children and youth would be your first call to develop a plan to get the child back into school as soon as possible and then find wrap around services to help the child.
Find Stable Funding for An Outreach Program
If the teacher does not find these students is there someone in the community who will look out for kids who are falling through the gaps? Is there a group that will go out to the malls, libraries and other places to see if their are kids abandoned by their family? Is there are program like the Bellfaire Youth Project that can build a trusting relationship with these young people? Is there are stable source of funding to make sure that they are covering the county? Where should these funds come from, and how many outreach workers does a community need to cover the county are issues that the state or county government needs to make.
Once a Child is found in danger of homelessness what do you do?
St. Paul's church on the near West Side of Cleveland has partnered with Bellfaire to open their doors to young people so they are not running the street and being recruited by criminals. They also have an outreach component to go out and talk to neighbors and store owners in the near West Side about any issues with young people. Heights Youth Club has a similar approach to serve kids from the east side heights in partnership with the Boys and Girls Club. Does each neighborhood have safe spaces like these for young people to go that will exercise their body and mind? If there are not these places kids will find negative relationships to fill their time. Again, these spaces are extremely valuable to the community, and need to be supported with public dollars.
Housing for Young People
As we stated above there are very few landlords willing to lease to young people. The YWCA and the Sisters of Charity Foundation are working on addressing the problem of homelessness among homeless young people. They are building housing with support services for this population especially young people who age out of the foster care system and then become homeless. Communities were only given permission by the federal government, in the last few years, to begin to serve this population with supportive housing, and these two groups are taking the lead in trying to meet this need. Providing housing to any population is expensive, and it is going to take corporate, government, school districts and the religious community all coming together to meet this need with resources and services. We are not sure what the exact number of people who need this help every year, but there are studies underway. Cleveland can solve this problem if we can get our political leadership to answer Ms. Bernstein's call to end homelessness for anymore David Boones. We cannot build a couple of units and rest. We need to fully meet the need for housing dedicated to serving young people, because doing anything less is far more expensive. If we lose these kids, we lose them for decades. Taxpayers will be responsible for their housing, food, incarceration, and hospitalization for life if we lose them during their high school career. So, the two to three years of housing provided while a young person finds a job, completes their education and can pay their own rent is a great down payment on saving all the costs of homelessness for a community.
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