Special Focus

A school district offers support to its students

In the Windham Southeast district, approximately 4% of students are homeless or housing insecure. Tricia Hill finds them and helps them.

BRATTLEBORO-Tricia Hill's job is to reach out to the homeless student population of the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union and offer them services like laundry vouchers and sports equipment.

"Basically, our goal is to remove barriers so students who are experiencing homelessness can access their public education just like a student who is not experiencing homelessness," she said.

Her position as homeless liaison was extended this year into a full-time position. Three days a week, Hill works in her school district office. The other two days a week, she's at Brattleboro Union High School, where she is "working really closely with students that are experiencing homelessness," she said.

Out of the 2,530 students in the district, approximately 108 students - in 70 to 75 families and ranging from kindergarteners to high school seniors - are experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity.

With homelessness on the rise statewide, "I wouldn't be surprised to see the number of students increase even more next year," she said.

Hill, 44, has been in the school district for 10 years, the first nine as administrative assistant at Oak Grove School in Brattleboro.

In her last year there, she worked closely with Carol Rayl, who held her current position.

The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 funds her position, one that is required at every school district that gets Title 1 funding for schools. Districts are eligible for the funds if at least 40% of students come from low-income families.

The McKinney-Vento liaison's job is to identify homeless youth and try to address the barriers to their success in school.

What defines homeless?

"I think it's important, when we talk about the homeless, we're not necessarily talking about people living in tents," Hill said. "We're talking about people who are in doubled-up situations. Maybe they're sharing the houses of others - house surfing, so to speak."

Or, she said, "it could be that they've lost their homes. It could be economic hardship. It could be living in hotels or motels. It could be living in a camper - that's considered substandard housing.

"They could be living in emergency shelters or transitional shelters," Hill continued. "But then again, they are the people who are living outside in public spaces or abandoned buildings."

Then there are the unaccompanied youth.

"That's my main goal at the high school," Hill said. "I'm also trying to identify as many kids as we can, and also identify as many unaccompanied youth as we can."

An "unaccompanied youth" is somebody who, first, would have to meet the McKinney-Vento definition of homeless, which is "lacking a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence." Then, the youth would have to not be in physical custody of a parent or guardian.

"So if the youth is living with an aunt who is in a motel, that would be called unaccompanied," Hill said.

"There are not too many of them, but I do think that we're underidentifying them," Hill said. "They probably don't know that there are services. They don't know they are able to get help. Especially when it comes to helping out with college applications and transcripts and things like that."

Students can perceive homelessness as a stigma, Hill said.

"I think a lot of people don't really want to have that title attached to them," she said. "So they're not seeking help or looking for help. They're in high school and just hanging out with friends who are putting them up, or living from family to family."

"Their friends' parents allow them to stay there, and they just go from couch to couch," she continued. "Or they could also be living with other family members. They could be living with an aunt or an uncle or grandparent who doesn't have legal custody."

Identifying students in need

How does Hill find these students?

"When a student enrolls in the school district, in the enrollment form is a piece of paper for them," Hill said. "It just asks a couple of different questions. It asks if their current address is a temporary living arrangement, and they check yes or no. Then it asks if a living arrangement is due to loss of housing or economic hardship. And that's a yes-or-no question."

This questionnaire comes to Hill.

"And if they've answered yes to the questions, then I contact them," she said.

"I ask a couple of other questions just to figure out their housing situation," Hill continued. "And then I'm able to identify them as being McKinney-Vento eligible or not McKinney-Vento eligible. That's one way that we are able to get in touch with these students."

Another way is a referral form that's sent to Hill by what she calls "an essential partner."

"Most of our kids don't start the school year as being housing insecure," she said.

School personnel develop close relationships with these students and, during the school year, if anybody in the school - "whether it be your peer educator, whether it be your custodian, whether it be your guidance counselor, your teacher" - overhears a student refer to a move into a motel or otherwise indicate homelessness, "we ask [the school employee] to fill out a referral form and send it to me," Hill said.

Removing barriers, providing transportation

Once a student fits into the McKinney-Vento system, the services that Hill can provide actually makes it easier in small ways that the housed don't even have to think about.

"They must be enrolled in school immediately," Hill said. "Then I'm able to give them laundry cards. I'm able to provide clothing." She's also able to provide any school supplies that require purchase, though that's usually not necessary in the WSESD.

"I'm able to make sure that they can participate in sports that are school-related," she said. "So if they need soccer cleats, if they need football shorts - just anything like that."

Transportation to school must be provided if a student's living situation changes during the school year.

"Let's say that we have a student that's currently living in in Brattleboro and they get evicted from their house," Hill said. "Maybe they're going to move in with grandparents in Hinsdale. So now they're going to be doubled up with a grandparent."

Still, she continued, "that student has the choice to remain in their school of origin, which would be our school, or attend a Hinsdale school. If the family decides the child would like to attend school in Brattleboro, both our school district and the Hinsdale school district must provide transportation to our school.

"Sometimes it's reimbursement to the parent. It could be we have to find an outside company to transport them. But we must provide transportation to the school of origin. And they can remain the school of origin for the remainder of the school year."

That plan works unless Hill deems that they're still homeless after the school year ends. Then they can continue on in their school throughout the duration of their homelessness.

"We're removing barriers and putting protections in place so that they can still attend school and receive a public education," Hill said.

Economic chaos can happen at any time

During the summer, other service agencies are there to help the homeless youth population. Hill can provide her services only during the school year, but she likes to keep in touch with the families she helps, even when school is not in session.

She knows that economic chaos can happen to a family at any time.

"I see families becoming evicted, yet there's no affordable housing in the area," Hill said. "There are different economic downfalls happening in the area."

Everybody's story is different, and "I think that's really important to know. I don't think it's one thing in particular," she continued.

"I love that I'm able to help these people. I love that the district is doing what they can do to be able to help all of these families. I think it's super, super, super important," Hill said.

"And I'd love to see more districts in Vermont and the surrounding states be able to do what we're doing as a district," she added.

This Special Focus item by Joyce Marcel was written for The Commons.

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