We all understand the difficulties of middle school and high school from homework to social pressures, but not necessarily the challenges facing homeless students. Trying to navigate your school career without a supportive family and a stable home in place sounds impossible. Yet that’s the reality for tens of thousands of homeless students across the country who are classified as unaccompanied minors.
There are many reasons why students can become separated from their guardians including family dysfunction and incarceration. However, for cities with large immigrant populations like Los Angeles and San Francisco, the reality looks a little different. It’s not uncommon for homeless students to be undocumented minors whose parents were deported. In other situations, homeless students may have crossed the U.S. border on their own. Each situation is unique, but they all contribute to an epidemic of students struggling to receive a quality education. So how can school districts work with social services to best support these homeless students?
Homeless students aren’t an entirely new challenge. School districts have already implemented strategies to assist unaccompanied minor students with unstable housing situations. The McKinney-Vento Act outlines certain accommodations afforded to every student experiencing homelessness. However, each school has a special homeless education liaison in place to identify and reach out to students in need. The kids have access to immediate enrollment, transportation, and free school meals. Some schools also provide laundry and shower facilities and keep school buildings open after hours to offer homeless students a safe, quiet place to study. Nontraditional class programming and flexible hours can also help homeless students who need to financially support themselves.
Still, many homeless students fall through the cracks. They’re usually reluctant to disclose their circumstances to school authorities for fear of negative treatment or being reported to law enforcement. And even when homeless students receive help, nothing can fully erase all the stressors that come with being a young person on their own in a large city. That’s why studies show that students without a reliable place to live are prone to lower academic achievement and higher dropout rates than their peers.
A Need for Student Housing
The need for student housing is a big problem and one that should urge school districts to look at their resources more creatively since they are the organizations feeling it the most. Schools and other social programs can work together to provide many of the things kids need, but when it comes down to it, housing is the gap right now. In a city where real estate is hard to come by, school districts might have surplus school sites they’re no longer using for educational purposes. Why not convert that land into housing for unaccompanied minors?
However, the solution will take some out of the box thinking and considering each school district’s unique needs and goals. It is important for districts to engage a trusted advisor with real estate and development experience, along with experience with school districts to think through these solutions. The first step in the process is reviewing district-owned assets, particularly those that are underutilized, to identify which sites could be used for housing. Once these sites are identified, development analysis for long-term housing would occur. However, as this is an urgent issue, the district would also need to secure temporary housing. From there, funding would need to be allocated for both permanent and temporary housing while putting together a sustainable, permanent housing solution. From this point forward, an advisor would take the school district through the approval process, manage construction, and help set-up ongoing management of the property.
Future steps past this phase will require significant collaboration. School districts already work closely with social services, but there’s plenty of potential in other community resources, too. Low-income housing authorities might be a part of the plan for developing resident criteria, for example. The city’s public transportation system can also help by providing subsidized bus passes, and nonprofits and churches can lend their vans to help transport students to and from school.
Schools are uniquely positioned to help protect unaccompanied minors from the dangers of homelessness and connect them with the appropriate local services. Helping homeless students succeed at school and beyond can go a long way toward improving this vulnerable population’s future. If your school district wants to develop a plan to support unaccompanied minors who are encountering homelessness, DCG Strategies can help. Contact us to schedule a consultation.