30 years after landmark legislation, schools still struggle to serve homeless students

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It's been three decades since, recognizing the unique needs of homeless students, Congress passed a law requiring school districts to identify and meet the needs of homeless students. 

Since the McKinney-Vento Act passed in July of 1987, school districts have been tasked with ensuring homeless students have access to education, and the results, experts and advocates say, have been somewhat mixed.

"What it's done is actually allow homeless children to go to school," said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a national group that advocates for resources for homeless children. "When the act was passed, state residency laws, guardianship [and] other rules for enrollment essentially barred homeless children from going to school."

Now, schools are expected to enroll homeless students without imposing barriers, and must continue to admit a student who became homeless while attending the school. Districts must have a liaison for homeless students to help them with things like transportation to school, tutoring services, or any obstacles homelessness presents to their education.

"On paper, the law really does address the barriers," she said. "The challenge is implementation and the lack of resources behind it."

Only one in four school districts in the country receive federal assistance to specifically serve homeless students. Five districts in Los Angeles County receive such grants, said Melissa Schoonmaker, who coordinates homeless programs though the L.A. County Office of Education. The maximum grant for a district is $250,000 per year—and that's for a district with at least 5,000 homeless students. 

"In the big scheme of what kids need, it's not a lot of money," Schoonmaker said. 

Which is a shame, she said, because schools are often the only provider specifically looking at the needs of kids, whereas most other programs cater to parents. 

Janet Kelly, executive director of Sanctuary of Hope, an organization that serves homeless youth and young adults in South Los Angeles, said along with funding challenges, some schools don't know how to comply with McKinney-Vento.

"It's as simple as when a young person walks into a school and they're unaccompanied and they say, 'hey, I don't have a parent, I want to enroll in school,' and a school representative says, 'no, you need to have an adult to help you enroll,'" Kelly said. "At schools, the education about what McKinney-Vento really means does not permeate across all the lines of authority."

Nor, necessarily, does the the idea of going beyond the basics of the requirement, she said. A homeless student may enroll in a school, but then there may be no one who's ensuring they're earning enough credits to graduate or getting proper help applying for higher education.

And these barriers are particularly harsh, Kelly said, for unaccompanied homeless youth, a growing population nationally and within Los Angeles.

"They don't know what their rights are, they can't access services, they're at a loss for everything they need to get connected to," like food stamps and income supports, said Angela Chandler, coordinator of the Homeless Education Program at the L.A. Unified School District. 

"They become hopeless," she said. School officials provide backpacks, hygiene kits, uniforms, tutoring, TAP cards, and some other supports. 

"Of course, we wish we could provide housing," Chandler said. "The underlying condition is a lack of affordable housing."

LAUSD, for the past couple of years, has been placing school district employees in some of the county's intake centers for homeless families. Under an expanded program, funded through dollars from Measure H, a new sales tax voters approved to combat homelessness, they're planning to expand to homeless youth intake centers as well. Areas of the county that don't have LAUSD schools in them, like the Antelope Valley and San Gabriel Valley, will also get school district liaisons through Measure H.

The liaisons both refer families showing up in the shelters to schools for the children and connect homeless children identified in local schools to county-funded resources like shelters and rental support.

"It's substantial," Kelly, the youth advocate said. "What needs to be answered is what work is going to be done to ensure the educational success of our youth experiencing homelessness and I don't believe that's been articulated well as of yet."

Enacting McKinney-Vento 30 years ago was a step, she said, and Measure H shows progress, but there's a whole lot of work to do.

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