by Chrissy Clements
When one hears the word homeless, most people think of older men sleeping on the streets. This is the most visible homeless population, and has become the icon for homelessness. Children and youth are probably not the first think most people think of when they think of homelessness, though national, state and local statistics indicate that children and youth are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population.
Homeless children do not wear an identification bracelet or a sign indicating that they are, indeed, homeless. On the contrary, most of them do everything they can to not be identified at all. This is due in large part to the stigmatization of homeless people and fear of being ostracized not only by their peers but also by other members of our community.
Last year, Congress passed and President George Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Law, which dramatically expands the rights of homeless children to education. Members of the Youth Empowerment Project in Cleveland contacted the school districts of Cuyahoga County and asked them to identify their homeless liaison as required by the No Child Left Behind Law.
It was not a surprise to hear many districts claim that they did not have a “homeless problem”. Not only is there a federal law, the McKinney-Vento Federal Assistance Act, but also a state law requiring every school district in Ohio to appoint a homeless liaison to advocate for the educational rights of children and youth in transition. The McKinney-Vento Act, as a federal law, overrules any state, local, or district law or policy that contradicts the new expanded federal law.
From preliminary research of Cuyahoga County’s districts, many may be in violation with the recently reauthorized law. A review of different districts’ enrollment procedures was an indicator that there may be a problem. Enrollment and transportation are two key issues under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. School districts must immediately enroll students who are homeless, even if they do not have the required documents, such as school records, medical records, proof of residency, or other necessary documents. The education attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, Patricia Julianelle, says it is up to school district administrators to know and understand what a homeless student’s rights under the law are.
The educational laws, unlike the HUD definition, broadly define homelessness. A child or youth staying with friends or relatives due to a loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason is protected by McKinney-Vento in order to stay in their school of origin. If that friend or relative resides in a district outside of the school of origin’s district, different provisions of the law may be applied to uphold the student’s educational rights.
Section 725 of McKinney-Vento defines the term “homeless child and youth” to include: children and youth who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence, and includes children and youth who are sharing housing with other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason; are living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to a lack of alternative adequate accommodations; are living in emergency or transitional shelters; are abandoned in hospitals; or are awaiting foster care placement.
Children or youth who have a primary nighttime residence that is a private or public place not designated for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodations for human beings are also in McKinney’s definition. Children and youth who are living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings, and migratory children are also considered homeless by the McKinney –Vento definition.
Some schools are confused by the law’s definitions and fear illegal resident movement into their district. During a school meeting with homeless and formerly homeless youth this past January, one young man commented, “There are so many kids trying their best to get out of school, you wouldn’t think they would have so many problems trying to get in.” The young man went on to ask, “What sense does it make to keep a student from enrolling and getting an education?” He described education as a hand up instead of getting kicked down and out.
Problems within Cuyahoga County’s districts have been documented along with other districts in the state of Ohio. Most revolve around enrollment and the student’s right to stay in school of origin. Ignorance of the law may be to blame. Some school officials have said the difficulty is identifying and determining who is homeless. “You can’t help if you don’t know.”
Training and assistance is available at the state level through the Ohio Department of Education. Thomas Dannis is the homeless coordinator for the state who also must ensure the districts complies with the law.
The National Law Center on Homeless and Poverty, National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, National Center for Homeless Education, and the National Coalition for the Homeless have tips, tool kits, and other very useful information for educators, parents, and other interested community members for understanding the rights, needs, and issues children and youth in transition face.
The accompanying graph includes the name and contact information of the districts that responded to repeated calls and letters requesting information. The chart above the contact information on the previous page list the six districts that have not answered their mail or responded to many telephone calls asking for the name of the homeless liaison for the district. A couple of districts claimed that they did not have homeless people and so therefore did not need a liaison. All districts that have not responded are currently in violation of federal law.
There is a wealth of information available for free on the internet. The Youth Empowerment Project is also working with districts throughout Ohio to increase awareness and sensitivity of homeless children and youth issues.
In the state of Ohio there are only twelve homeless children and youth programs. These twelve programs serve children and youth within central school districts such as Columbus, Cincinnati, and Cleveland Municipal. Though homelessness may be highly concentrated in these geographic regions, homelessness does not know geographic boundaries. It stretches across this state regardless of district, county, and region, urban or rural.
There are children and youth who reside outside of these districts and need advocates and assistance in ensuring their educational rights are safeguarded. Such advocacy and assistance cannot rest on districts or their appointed liaisons only; it requires a community effort.
If you would like to learn more about this issue, or the other challenges homeless children and youth face log onto www.yep.cohhio.org. If you are aware of a problem within your district or a neighboring district, please contact Cleveland’s Youth Empowerment Project office at 216/432-0540 ext. 403.
Cuyahoga County School Districts In Violation of Federal Law
(Homeless Children McKinney-Vento Law) These districts have failed to identify even the name of a liaison for the schools:
Copyright for the Homeless Grapevine Cleveland Ohio published April 2003 Issue 60