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Homelessness and children are two words that should never mix. With the impact of COVID-19 the transition to virtual learning, dealing with issues of mental and emotional health, and the struggle to meet academic grading standards, it is safe to say that children are dealing with a handful of challenges.

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But for some students who experience homelessness, there is a disproportionately higher rate of underachievement in schools. The homeless are a vulnerable population that is often hidden in plain sight. They often go without consistent food, housing or financial stability.

With the rise in home evictions, natural disasters and unemployment amidst the pandemic, the increase of student homelessness is inevitable as the pandemic continues to widen the education gap. Blacks and Hispanics faced a number of disparities pre-pandemic and now with Houston school districts diving headfirst into in-person instruction, many homeless students might not be able to return.

Sarah Grace, 61, survived Hurricane Harvey in 2017. The storm damaged her house, as she witnessed her ceiling collapse, leaving her and her then 8-year-old daughter to shelter in a garage turned makeshift den to protect them from the environmental elements and exposed pipelines.

Grace was unemployed at the time, and was shocked to learn that the damages to her home were an estimated $100,000. For a short period of time, she stayed with her sister until she could figure out her next move.

Young man sleeping on street. Photo Credit Ievgen Chabanov

“I was devastated, mostly for my daughter. I felt helpless and she was so worried and I didn’t want the situation to affect her in school. Trying to provide her with a sense of normalcy was hard all while trying to reach out to FEMA for aid that wasn’t enough to cover the damages to my home,” Grace said. “The Houston Area Urban League (HAUL) was my saving grace and were very intentional in learning what my needs were.”

Graced said it took four years for her house to be fully renovated with HAUL’s resources. During that period, she noticed some faults in the way her daughter’s school extended assistance for families. She attended a Houston area public school.

“The school asked for families to call the office to get information to receive clothes and non-perishable food items. It turned out to be a chaotic situation because there were so many families in need who showed up to the school and many of them had different concerns that the school couldn’t provide,” she explained.

“I needed medication, and the food options for many families I met didn’t meet their dietary standard. Schools in general should be more organized and intentional about what they were providing to families like HAUL. HAUL, for example, provided me with things like gift cards so I can purchase what I truly needed to take care of me and my daughter.”

“Our biggest hurdle is trying to stay connected with these families because they are having financial difficulties, their phones are disconnected and they frequently move around,” said Lisa Jackson, senior manager of the HISD Student Assistance Program. “For the upcoming school year, we are trying to develop a student re-engagement center to intercept families on the cusps of homelessness and provide them resources to accommodate their needs.”

As part of their Student Assistance Program, HISD will provide Metro passes for students and set up transportation services for students who attend HISD but live outside of the district, a servie critical for homeless students. They received a community donation of $20,000 to start their housing program helping 20 families struggling to meet housing criteria or to pay basic rental fees including deposits and first month’s rent.

“Not only do we normally provide food, uniforms, backpacks and school supplies, but year-round, we are educating our staff and parents on what their rights are and inform families that we’re not going to call CPS on you because you are displaced. We are here to help,” Jackson said.

The U.S Department of Education released nearly $600 million in funding under the American Rescue Plan Act’s Homeless Children and Youth (ARP-HCY) program to support students experiencing homeless. The Department’s approval of these funds recently gave states and school districts access to this critical funding before the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year.

Texas received more than $81 million in its total ARP Homeless Allocation. States can provide services in light of the impact of the pandemic to help children participate fully in school activities consistent with the McKinney Vento Act, a piece of federal legislation related to the education of children and youth homelessness. 

Fort Bend ISD participates in a federal program that allows students to receive free breakfast and lunch every school day all year long with or without filling out the application. The school district also has a program called “Share Dream” that runs out of their Collaborative Communities department to provide school and home necessities.

“If a family shares with a school nurse or counselor that they have a lack of clothes, toiletries or school supplies, we have those available not only to our homeless students, but for anyone who may be in need,” said Lisa Coston, director of State and Federal Programs for Fort Bend ISD. “We even have a service directory on our website for families who may not be comfortable coming forward about their situations.”

“We’ve opened up our McKinney Vento application earlier. Usually, it’s not available until the first week of school. But due to the federal ban on evictions expiring, we want to help families experiencing homelessness, going to hotels, or doubling up with family and friends to fill out these forms as soon as possible,” said Jennifer Sowells, homeless/foster care liaison for Fort Bend ISD. “They can get it to their campus counselor, get the kids enrolled, coordinate nutrition benefits and transportation with our social workers so that there will be an easier transition for the first days of school.”

HOMELESS STUDENT CHALLENGES

According to a study by the Houston Education Research Consortium at Rice University (HERC), homeless students attending Houston ISD were: 

  • Attending 3.2 fewer days of school per year
  • 18% more likely to drop out of school
  • Slightly more likely to pass the STAAR exam in reading and, to a lesser extent, math. However, less likely to take exams.
  • Students living in shelters were particularly likely to drop out of school.

SUPPORT VIA HOUSTON SCHOOL DISTRICTS

Houston ISD Student Assistance: Senior Manager, Lisa Jackson ljacks14@houstonisd.org 713-556-6000

Fort Bend ISD Homeless and Foster Student Programs: Lisa Coston, Director of State and Federal Programs Lisa.Coston@fortbendisd.com 281-634-1000

Alief ISD Homeless and Unaccompanied Youth Service: Ana D. Garcia, Homeless Liaison Assistant Ana.garcia@aliefisd.net 281-498-8110, ext 29072