WSESU confronts homelessness among its students

School staff, social service agencies try to find safe alternatives for students in difficult living situations

The Windham Southeast Supervisory Union (WSESU) has identified 90 school-aged children and youth in the district who are experiencing homelessness.

This is 10 more than were identified last year and includes about seven "unaccompanied youth" - older teenagers who are separated from a parent or guardian.

Tricia Hill is the district's McKinney-Vento liaison (named for the federal legislation that funds the position), required at every school district that receives Title I funds. In this position, Hill identifies homeless youth and addresses the barriers to their success in school.

In a recent interview, Hill, who started in the position this school year, and her predecessor, Carole Rayl, who held the position for six years, talked about the challenges and successes of this work.

Because of the stigma associated with homelessness, it can be difficult to identify students who could benefit from the services provided by the district. Hill prioritizes educating the public and school staff about the program so that families can be referred for services.

"Everyone at the school is an essential partner - from the parents to the teachers, to the custodians to the cafeteria workers - anybody can identify a child," she said.

The U.S. Department of Education's definition of homelessness is more expansive than the definition used by the federal government to determine eligibility for housing assistance.

In this context, children whose nighttime residences aren't "fixed" (doesn't change), regular (used on a nightly basis), or adequate (meets the family's needs)" are considered homeless and therefore eligible for McKinney-Vento program assistance.

This definition includes substandard housing and living situations where families are "buddying up," or sharing housing that would be deemed overcrowded.

"This definition captures families and students who are precariously housed, not just those who are literally homeless," said Katy Preston, state coordinator for homeless education in Vermont.

Preston, a Vermont Agency of Education employee, works with the 52 school districts or supervisory unions in the state with McKinney-Vento liaisons.

Many homeless youth are 'not seen'

In the 2021-22 school year, Vermont school districts identified 1,312 homeless children and youth, up from 1,006 in the previous year. Of those children and youth, 55% were in buddying-up situations.

Of this year's $322,500 federal McKinney-Vento program allocation to the state, $250,000 was awarded to seven local school districts, including the WSESU. Those school districts that do not receive these grants fund their programs with Title I dollars.

Hill thinks there are "many more" unaccompanied youth in the community than she has been able to identify. Many of these youth are "not seen," said Rayl.

"What happens with these kids is they are in and out of school," she said. "Maybe there's a family fight, or maybe there's drug use or stress in the family. They're out for two weeks, then they're back, and then they're out again and nobody really sees that."

Being able to identify and support these older youth is why Hill spends two of her five days a week at the high school. "It was a huge success when one of these students let me know he got his learner's permit," she said.

Russell Bradbury-Carlin, executive director of Youth Services in Brattleboro, agrees that it's very difficult to identify unaccompanied youth.

"It's really hard to get the number of these youth because you don't see them," he said. "They do a lot of couch-surfing. It might sound like they're doing sleepovers, like it's fun."

For them, the process of securing shelter "often starts with them staying with a friend or a friend's family for a short time," Bradbury-Carlin continued.

"Then they go to another friend for a short time, and then they run out of their close friends. And then it's friends of friends," he said.

"And then they stay with someone who knows someone," Bradbury-Carlin said. "Often those situations tend to become riskier, more dangerous. Some of these youth end up being trafficked in some way."

Consistency, stability are in their best interest

One of the biggest challenges Hill faces in her position is ensuring that children experiencing homelessness can stay in their school of origin - the last school they attended before becoming homeless.

The McKinney-Vento Act, which authorizes the school district liaison programs, protects a student's right to remain in the school of origin, as well as the right to receive transportation to and from the school of origin.

In rural Vermont, this can be expensive. When a bus schedule can't be worked out, the program provides reimbursement for mileage for transportation or funds private transportation.

"If we're saying that what would be in the best interest for a child is to have consistency and stability, [for the child to remain] where people know them, then they should be able to stay in that school of origin," said Rayl.

Hill says that the program has also paid for laundry cards and equipment for students participating in school-sponsored sports.

"I'm the person that kind of helps put the family in touch with other resources that they might need to access, like a housing coordinator," Hill said. "I let them know where they can find food in town."

"I'm just being a point of contact and partnering with these parents to make sure that they're feeling supported," Hill added.

Rayl acknowledges that education may not be a priority for some families experiencing homelessness.

"We're in the business of providing education, but for some families, it may not be their priority, understandably," she said. "Whether or not your child is in school, or whether or not you show up for a meeting when your life is nothing but meetings - you know, it's just hard to imagine the circumstances of some people's lives."

Rayl defines program success as "kids coming to school."

"If they don't have the school experience, it's going to condemn them to even more of the instability and insecurity that they're already experiencing," she said.

"I'm so proud of this district," Rayl said, "for its will and intention to support the program and to recognize the need. There's a massive vulnerability out there and you can never do enough because the problem is bigger than what there are resources for. I am just very proud to be associated with WSESU."

This News item by Ellen Pratt was written for The Commons.

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