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Taylor Pospichel

Excerpted from:  Taylor Pospichel, Are California's Homeless Children Being Left Behind?: Analyzing the Implementation of Mckinney-vento Education Rights in California, 10 Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal 121 (Winter 2013)(Student Note)( 129 Footnotes)


       To much of the public, the stereotypical single men soliciting spare change and ‘bag ladies' living in alleys are the homeless. They are the visible homeless. However, fathers, mothers, babies, toddlers, children, and youth have joined their ranks. They are the invisible homeless.

      The phenomenon of family homelessness has become incredibly prevalent in recent years.  Whereas in the past few decades the homeless population consisted mostly of individual adults, it is now reported that in the United States 1.6 million children experienced homelessness in 2010. This reflects a 38% increase from 2007. An initial wave of family homelessness arose after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused destruction and displacement in 2005 and 2006. The compounding of factors, including the recent mortgage and foreclosure crisis, a lack of affordable housing, and the Great Recession, caused a continuous and rapid increase in the number of homeless families. Because families do not fit society's stereotypical image of people who are homeless, many resources are not tailored to address the specific needs of families that lose their housing.

      The minor children of families experiencing homelessness are placed in a position of turmoil.  They may move out of their homes to live with friends or family, live in a hotel, motel or other temporary housing not designed to be a primary residence, or live in a shelter, car, or on the street.  All of these living options are a form of homelessness according to the Department of Education (“DoE”) because the child has been removed from his or her prior home due to economic constraints.

      At the beginning of the Reagan administration, programs were created to address the rising number of homeless individuals in the United States. The Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 (“Act”) was the first legislative response to this crisis of homelessness. It provided for the creation of several federal agencies such as the Interagency Council on Homelessness and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Act also authorized supportive housing and affordable housing programs. Title VII of the McKinney-Vento Act specifically addresses difficulties homeless children may face in “enrolling, attending, and succeeding in The Act was reauthorized in 2001 as part of the No Child Left Behind Act. “The intent of the Education for Homeless Children and Youth program, Title VII-B of the Act, is to ensure that all homeless children and youth have access to the same free, appropriate public education, including a public preschool education, as provided to other children and The Act also creates the position of the homeless education liaison to work with both the school district and homeless children to ensure their educational needs are being met.

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II. What Does the McKinney-Vento Act Set Out to Do?

      The Act addresses the barriers to education discussed above and ensures that homeless children have access to schools and services. The Act requires that each state educational agency establish an Office of State Coordinator for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. This office is responsible for supervising the implementation of the Act, including “providing technical assistance, resources, coordination, data collection and overseeing compliance for all local educational The Act also designates that local educational agencies (school districts) appoint staff liaisons to ensure that homeless students are properly identified, enrolled, and attending schools. Each local educational agency is required to appoint at least one liaison.

      A crucial aspect of providing these services is the identification of children who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.  This requires awareness by both liaisons and school staff of the DoE's definition of homelessness.  Since families may not be willing to approach a school official to announce that they are homeless, staff must look for factors indicating a child's homeless status. Liaisons, as well as other school employees, can also look for changes in a student's behavior and appearance. For example, has the student been wearing the same clothes more frequently, stopped bringing a lunch, showed increased tiredness in class, or been absent more frequently? There is also a second outreach component to identification that requires a liaison to look outside of schools to find school-aged children who should be “enrolled or re-joined to appropriate school Each state describes in its state plan the techniques for identification of eligible students, and school personnel are obligated to follow these identification procedures.

      Through the homeless liaison, the schools must first establish whether a family is eligible for McKinney-Vento benefits because of their living situation.  The liaison will collaborate and coordinate with local shelters, relief agencies, and service providers to identify families and children that are using the providers' services.  It is much more difficult to identify homeless children who are not receiving help from a shelter or relief agency.  Liaisons can visit motels and local campgrounds to see if there are families staying there. Families often may not know that they qualify as homeless under the McKinney-Vento definition because they may still be in a somewhat traditional living situation (e.g., doubled-up with a family member). For this reason, the liaison is responsible for posting notices in the school and in the facilities of service providers (e.g., shelters, soup kitchens, housing offices) announcing the DoE's definition and the rights that homeless children are guaranteed under federal law.

      Once homeless children have been identified, the liaison and family must make decisions surrounding the schooling based on the best interests of the child. The child is entitled to stay in the school of origin for the duration of their homelessness or until the end of the academic year in which the family finds permanent housing. If the student and family prefer, the student may be enrolled in the proper school for their current living situation. The liaison will assist the student with this enrollment.

      Since homeless students may be staying in a residence further away from the school the child attends, the liaison is responsible for coordinating transportation to and from the school at the request of the parent or guardian. If the student's place of residence and school are in different districts, the liaisons from each district will work out an agreement splitting the transportation costs.

      Additionally, the liaison serves the important function of linking community services to students and their families. Whenever possible, the liaison will identify the change in the student's living situation early on and will direct the family to services in the community. Because liaisons identify the students early on, they may be able to point the family towards preventative and emergency housing services to help avoid becoming homeless. Liaisons will also provide referrals to medical services and help students receive required immunizations and physicals necessary to enroll in school.

      The Act was designed so that school districts cannot discriminate against homeless students and attempt to segregate them into certain schools rather than allow them to stay enrolled in their school of origin or the geographically accurate school. For this reason, the district must provide written justification if the student is sent to a school other than one requested by the student, parent, or guardian. The student and family also have the right to appeal the district's decision. Additionally, school administrators, staff, and teachers should be trained to recognize the needs of homeless children without stigmatizing or embarrassing them because of their living situation. Systemic planning and training will help keep bias and discriminatory attitudes at bay.

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[a1]. Senior Notes Editor, Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal, 2012-2013; J.D. Candidate, University of California, Hastings College of the Law, 2013; B.A., cum laude, International Affairs and Hispanic Languages & Literature, The George Washington University, May 2009.