S. E. Williams
The total number of homeless children in America is now estimated at two and a half million. This is an historic high and includes approximately one in every 30 children—more than 57,000 of those children are in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties.
Although 33 states actually saw a decrease in the number of people experiencing homelessness in from 2014 to 2015, California experienced a 1.6 percent increase. The state’s 2015 homeless rate per 100,000 residents was 29.8 percent.
Nationally, youth make up 6.5 percent of the overall homeless population. Also, unaccompanied children and youth (those not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian and who lack what has been defined as a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence) is a population of young people who are at an even higher risk of being unsheltered. According to the 2016 report, Homeless in America, 51.0 percent of unaccompanied minors and 45.6 percent of youth ages 18 to 24 are unsheltered.
When the federally mandated McKinney- Vento Act was implemented nearly 30 years ago, it was designed to ensure that homeless children had the same access to school as everyone else—this also included a public, preschool education.
At the federal, state and local levels, schools function as a hub for connecting students and families to housing, mentoring, tutoring, mental health and other services. In addition, state and local education agencies (SEAs and LEAs) are required to review and revise any laws, regulations, practices and/or policies that impede their ability to deliver on these requirements.
Currently, SEAs and LEAs around the nation are scrambling to ensure compliance with the new and enhanced requirements for educating homeless students as mandated by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Although ESSA does not take full effect until 2017, the ESSA amendments to the 1987 McKinney-Vento Act become effective October 1st.
The ESSA amendments will increase resources for homeless students by expanding the availability and use of Title IA funds of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. This Act provides financial assistance to LEAs and schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families and is designed to help ensure that all children meet state academic standards. The ESSA amendments will also raise the authorized funding level for the McKinney-Vento Act’s Education for Homeless Children and Youth program.
ESSA amendments include several key revisions to benefit the Homeless Children and Youth Program. Among them, the designation of appropriate school personnel with training to identify, enroll and support homeless students; increased school stability for homeless children and youth, so they can stay in their same school throughout their homelessness when it is in their best interest to do so; improved graduation readiness by ensuring college counseling and access to documentation for financial aid; assistance for young homeless children to access early childhood programs; and, authorization of more funding to support school district efforts to identify and serve children and youth experiencing homelessness.
It has been widely reported that with enhanced ESSA focus, the number of homeless and unaccompanied youth is likely to grow even more. This will be largely due to better reporting expectations under the new ESSA guidelines. They require districts to perform outreach to students with unstable housing several times during the school year; post public notices of homeless student rights; and most importantly—break-out reporting of high school graduation rates for homeless youth.
When the McKinney-Vento Act became law in 1987 it required that each school district designate a homeless liaison to ensure enforcement. Riverside and San Bernardino Counties are each served by a committed, dedicated, informed and capable project coordinator.
The Homeless Student Program for the Riverside County Superintendent of Schools is led by Coordinator Stephen McPeace who also acts as team lead for the homeless program liaisons within the various school districts in Riverside County, both public and charter. The San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools program for homeless students, “Children Deserve Success” is led by Homeless Education Project Manager Brenda Dowdy who also supports the homeless liaisons and community resource workers in the various school districts across the county, both public and charter.
Recently, McPeace and Dowdy spoke exclusively with The Voice/ Black Voice News regarding their ongoing efforts to meet the needs of the inland region’s homeless student population; their compliance with existing McKinney-Vento Act requirements; and the new ESSA enhancements.
California has more homeless children than any other state and most of them are in the state’s five most populous counties that include Riverside and San Bernardino. Both Dowdy and McPeace expressed their belief that California’s existing focus on homeless students has their counties well prepared to incorporate ESSA requirements easily into their existing efforts as most of what is being required under the new mandates are already in place locally.
“In Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, the numbers speak to the fact we are reaching out and identifying these families. In the past the numbers were lower; but now, because we are reaching out,” McPearce explained.
When asked about the issue of adequate funding to support his efforts McPearce shared that the program receives wonderful support from Riverside County Superintendent of Schools Kenneth M. Young. “There is a grant program for additional McKinney-Vento funds. Our superintendent sees so much value in this program he makes sure it is adequately funded.”
This year, only seven million dollars in McKinney-Vento funding was set aside for California, Dowdy shared when asked a similar question. “Only two school districts in San Bernardino County received McKinney-Vento funding,” Dowdy explained. She went on to speak highly of San Bernardino County’s, No Child Left Unsheltered initiative. It is aimed at permanently ending the tragedy of unsheltered children in the county. It not only focuses on the education and well-being of the children but also the economic advancement of the parent(s) and dovetails effectively with McKinney- Vento and the ESSA enhancements.
“No Child Left Unsheltered started about two years ago,” she shared. “School districts identify families and refer them to the housing authority.” The goal is to provide wrap-around services to families by connecting them to resources. “We do presentations together. We talk about our partnership and how we are making it work to meet the needs of the families. We are trying to serve the whole family.” The county’s Board of Supervisors and the police/sheriffs are also involved. “We collaborate at all levels.”
According to Dowdy and McPearce, both counties are keenly focused on identifying homeless families who also have preschool-aged children. “Because the county is so huge we are starting to reach out more through our preschool programs,” Dowdy advised.
Another priority for the coordinators is making sure parents know their children do not have to move from school to school when families are forced to relocate. The goal is to keep students from being uprooted and moved to different schools in the midst of the school year or at all.
Both counties are also working to make sure colleges and universities have a point of contact for homeless students once they graduate from high school.
If you know a homeless family in need of support and/or an unaccompanied youth in need of assistance, encourage them to reach out to the homeless liaison via the closest school site.
The needs of these children are great. If you would like to donate resources, i.e., bus passes, school supplies, etc. please contact Brenda Dowdy in San Bernardino County at (909) 386-2634 or Stephen McPearce in Riverside County at (951) 826-6248.
View the full report Hidden in Plain Sight at http://www.gradnation.org/ report/hidden-plain-sight.