Who’s Helping Virginia’s Houseless Students?

By Megan Schiffres

May 20, 2021

Post-pandemic, districts need help reaching houseless students and money is available. But they have to ask.

RICHMOND-Adele McClure remembers what it’s like to be houseless. Growing up in Virginia, she attended three different high schools as a ninth grader. At the time, her family was struggling to find permanent housing, so McClure moved from class to class. 

“It was very difficult academically because the curriculums were different between schools,” McClure, now the executive director of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said. “The schools didn’t allow me to catch up on material either, so sometimes when I arrived at a new school, the class was already in the middle or the end of a lesson plan.” 

Those constant changes had lasting effects. For example, McClure received her first F in geometry during her ninth grade year. Normally a good math student, she simply hadn’t caught up to the rest of the class before the final exam. 

“The next quarter I got an A in that same class. This was because I was able to start from the beginning of the lesson plan,” McClure said. “Because of this F I received in that quarter of ninth grade geometry, my school counselor in 11th grade told me that I didn’t deserve to apply for Ivy League schools for college.”

Thousands of students are currently dealing with a similar situation in the Commonwealth. The National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE) says in 2019, there were 20,443 houseless students enrolled in Virginia public schools. And many, like McClure, find themselves repeatedly jumping from school to school, struggling to catch up to the rest of the class. 

The problem’s only grown over the last year, as the pandemic caused people to lose their jobs and homes. So how do you help these houseless students? It takes work on the state and federal level. 

A Lack of Affordable Housing

To deal with a problem, you first have to identify the root cause. In Virginia, one of the key factors leading to houseless families, is a lack of affordable housing. Patricia Popp, Project Hope’s state coordinator, sees it on a regular basis. 

“We know that the lack of affordable housing is a critical factor in Virginia. Families already living in poverty that experience a major crisis, [such as] serious illness, death of a family member, job loss, are less likely to have the resources to accommodate the additional stressor and this leads to the loss of housing,” said Popp. 

Project Hope Virginia is the Commonwealth’s program for educating houseless children and youths. The College of William and Mary administers the program on behalf of the Virginia Department of Education. 

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), there’s a shortage of affordable rental homes for extremely low-income Virginians. The coalition reports that 241,874 households, of 22% of all rentals in Virginia, are home to people with extremely low incomes. And that doesn’t even account for the people who can’t access affordable housing. The NLIHC estimates that 148,720 extremely low-income families are living without affordable housing in the Commonwealth. 

Houseless Students Face Challenges

It doesn’t help when existing low-income properties shift, as we’ve seen in Richmond. Earlier this year, we highlighted the issues with Richmond’s plan to “redevelop” low-income housing. A total of 283 children and 321 adults living in just one of those communities, Creighton Court, will be displaced later this year as the housing authority converts the community into “mixed-use, mixed-income housing.” 

Some units will be low-income, but others, as shown in this presentation to Creighton Court residents, will be at market rate. That means fewer homes the current tenants can afford, unless their finances change. 

To be clear, these tenants aren’t being immediately kicked out. The housing authority connects them with ‘transition counselors’ who assess their needs and help share the available resources and options. Creighton Court is the first low-income property set to be redeveloped, beginning this fall. But these are still families who have to relocate, with fewer low-income options available. 

That contributes to the problem, with more kids changing schools or dealing with complicated situations. How do you adapt when your family is stuck in temporary housing? What do you do when you’re in three schools in six months? It’s more than just a challenge with grades. It affects mental health as well.  

“I was always worrying about things that kids should not have to worry about. Worried about the threat of eviction. Worried whether we’ll be able to pay rent that month,” said McClure. 

To add to that stress, the social life of houseless children also suffers. It’s isolating, according to McClure. 

“It was really hard to make and maintain friendships and relationships because I was moving from place to place,” McClure said. 

So how do you deal with an issue like this? The solution, or at least part of it, comes from local schools. 

The Right to An Education 

In the US, the McKinney-Vento Act guarantees all students an education through 12th grade. The Act requires two things. First, the student’s parents or guardians have the right to choose which public school their child attends. Second, districts must accept houseless students, allowing them to enroll at any part of the year. 

But students aren’t supposed to be left on their own. The law requires each district have a “homeless liaison”. These liaisons are responsible for connecting houseless students and their families with the resources they need. You can find a list of liaisons for each district in Virginia right here

In Richmond, Erika Schmale handles that job, with help from a variety of people across the district. 

“Children experiencing homelessness are primarily identified through school staff, teachers, front office staff, social workers [and] family liaisons,” Schmale said. “We have a very basic online training as well as live trainings to teach staff about how to identify and support students.” 

It’s not realistic to ask all houseless students to self-identify. So school staff and teachers, Schmale said, are trained to look for a variety of indicators. 

Does the student have a lack of personal records? Do they have unmet medical and dental needs? The staff also look for things like anxiety late in the school day, inconsistent grooming, and wearing the same clothing for multiple days. 

And yes, the pandemic in some ways has made this more challenging. Part of the year, teachers and students worked remotely, which makes it harder to pick up identifiers. But now, as all of Virginia’s school districts currently offer at least some in-person instruction, districts are working to help houseless students catch up. And they’re doing it thanks to some support from the federal government. 

Houseless Students Get Help 

The McKinney-Vento Act provides federal funds to help. But there’s a catch. First, the school district has to ask for the money. Second, they have to detail a plan for how they’ll use it. Virginia received $1,859,264 from the fund over the three year period from fiscal year 2019-2021, according to the US Department of Education

Last year, Project HOPE reported that 130 Virginia school districts identified houseless students. However, only 31 put out proposals and received grant funding. Richmond was one of those 31. According to Project Hope, last year the district had 852 houseless students. To help these students, Schmale says the district provides them with nutritional and transportation services. 

“Richmond Public Schools offers free lunch to all students, so thankfully this is already available. [The district] ensures that [houseless] students are immediately enrolled in their zone school, even if they are missing normally required enrollment documents,” Schmale said. “Or [the district] provides transportation to the student’s current [or] school of origin.” 

The district helps transport houseless students even if they live in a neighboring county, she added.  

A Shot in The Arm

The McKinney funding got a significant shot in the arm last month, thanks to President Biden’s American Rescue Plan. A total of $800 million was set aside in that project to help houseless students. Part of that, $200 million, was allocated to state governments on April 26. Remember when we said Virginia received just over $1.8 million in McKinney funds over the last three fiscal years? The American Rescue Plan funding will increase that to $13.8 million this year, with districts allowed to be more creative with their proposals.  

For example, ARP funds can be used to hire district staff to reconnect with houseless students in the area. Also, the districts can help in an emergency. If a family is losing their home days before their son or daughter will finish the semester, the district can request funds to provide the family with a motel room. Districts can also use the money to buy personal hygiene supplies for students and generally help meet the needs, so the kids will have less to worry about. 

The remaining $600 million in American Rescue Plan funding will go out later this summer. U.S. Department of Education officials are collecting data on what the needs are, before issuing rules to make sure the money is spent on houseless students and their families.  

What Can You Do? 

If you want to help houseless students in Virginia, you can! Donate your time, resources, or financial support to your local shelter. You can find a directory of shelters in Virginia here.

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