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John Monfredo: Help Needed to Address Homeless in Our Schools

Saturday, March 17, 2012

 

“One out of four homeless people is a child. The fastest growing homeless group in the United States is families with children. Their number nearly doubled between 1984 and 1989, and continues to do so. Many homeless children are alone. They may be runaways who left home because there is no money for food, because they are victims of rape, incest, or violence or because one or both of their parents is in emotional turmoil. Some are "throwaways" whose parents tell them to leave home, or won't allow them to return once they leave.”

It’s the same in all urban settings include Worcester! Here’s what a student at one of the high schools said to me: “I just can’t concentrate and I worry about what the next day will bring for I’m with two other families and is very difficult … I’m petrified and frightened to tell anyone about my situation.”

These statements are not from the city of New York they are from children who are homeless in Worcester and are among the 2400 students who worry about what is going to happen to them. These students represent ten percent of the Worcester Public School population. People living in poverty are most at risk of becoming homeless. In our city 71.8% of our students live under the poverty line. Unfortunately, the public only sees the buses rolling and sees the 44 schools in our system operating but few can understand the changes that have taken place in our schools. As stated, similar to all urban cities in this nation, we in Worcester have homeless children in our schools and it impacts their education!

Food pantry support

Maureen Binienda principal at South High Community School told me about a student who received A’s and then unexpectedly his marks dropped. She finally was able to find out that this high school student was now living in a shelter. South High has responded to the homeless situation by starting a food pantry at their school and has a partnered with “Andy’s Attic” for clothing. Then on April 9th, according to Principal Binienda South High will collaborate with the Central Mass Housing Alliance and the mayor’s office for a summit on “Visions of Change” a conference that will deal with homelessness. 

It is no surprise to find that children experiencing homelessness face many barriers to education. If you look at the data one sees a high absence rate, lots of moving from place to place, and poor health and nutrition. Again, according to the data homeless children are likely to be ill four times more often than other children with four times as many respiratory infections, and they are four times more likely to have asthma attacks. Unfortunately, homeless children go hungry twice as often as other children.

Does poverty impact academic progress? You bet it does! This is not given as an excuse but as a fact. Just think about it. Can you function if you’re hungry and have a tooth ache or are worrying about where you’re sleeping tonight?

Homelessness impacts MCAS scores

Looking at the data on MCAS scores in grade three to twelve one sees that homeless children have a much higher percentage in the area of needs improvement and failing. Here is an example: In grade eight, the percentage of homeless children receiving a warning on their English Language Arts test was 23.2% with non homeless children only 9.6%. In math, homeless children had a warning rate of 56.8% as compared to 34.0% of non homeless students. Nevertheless, there are resilient students among the homeless and they are able to persevere for we do see students in the advanced and proficient range -but not many. So when looking at the scores of a district one needs to keep in mind the over-all circumstances of that district.

Another reason for those low test scores is the high absentee rate from kindergarten through high school for those children labeled as homeless. Common sense would tell you that it would be higher due to health issues, psychology issues, and hunger. Many of these children are bright but their physical needs have hindered their progress. Homeless youths are one of the most marginalized and victimized populations in schools. They experience more daily stressors and are more vulnerable to victimization than housed youth. Youth who are homeless have sustained higher rates of physical and sexual abuse prior to becoming homeless than the general population, and they are at continued risk for being physically assaulted and exposed to sexual exploitation. Similarly, rates of substance use, family violence, health issues and suicide are higher in this population.

These children live in shelters, doubling up (sharing the housing of others due to loss of housing, and economic hardship), with some living in cars, parks, and many others awaiting foster care. There are many causes of homelessness for the economic downturn has forced more families into poverty thus jeopardizing children’s educational success. Other causes of homelessness according to the National Coalition for the Homeless are shortage of affordable housing, decline in public assistance, domestic violence and poverty. In addition, most people live a paycheck or two from having no money for a roof over their heads.

Congress stepping in

Congress attempted to assist homeless children in the 1980’s but in 2012 needs to do more! In late 1986, legislation containing Title I of the Homeless Persons' Survival Act was introduced as the Urgent Relief for the Homeless Act. After an intensive advocacy campaign, large bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress passed the legislation in 1987. After the death of its chief Republican sponsor, Representative Stewart B. McKinney of Connecticut, the act was renamed the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act. Then in 2000 President William Clinton renamed the legislation National Coalition for the Homeless and the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act after the death of Representative Bruce Vento, a leading supporter of the act since its original passage in 1987.
The goal of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act is to ensure that each homeless child or youth is able to benefit from their educational program in spite of the challenges of their living situation. In an attempt to stabilize the child’s education and cut back on the mobility issue transportation is provide to children if they have had to move to a shelter or another setting. The child may continue to go to the same school.

As the Worcester Public Schools flyer states, “To the extent as practical and as required by law, the district will work with homeless families to provide stability in school attendance and other needed services.” The one flaw in this act is that it is an unfunded mandate. The Worcester Public Schools pays out of their budget over $400,000 to transport homeless students but does receive $60,000 in grant money that pays for head start home visits…staff outreach and case management, student materials such as first aid classes and emergency supplies for families, some school vacation programs, administrative support, and professional development training for teachers. 

Educating staff about homelessness

In Worcester, Judy Thompson who wears many hats in the Worcester Public Schools (Coordinator of Counseling, Psychology and Community Outreach Services) is the liaison person for homeless programs for our students. The Worcester Public Schools, under Mrs. Thompson’s direction, attempts to educate staff about the homeless including the following: Reminding staff that the start of a new school can be stressful and intimidating for students, emphasizing the importance of establishing rapport with the students to let them know that the school is there for assistance, informing students of school programs and extracurricular activities that the students may be interested in participating in, have clothing and school supplies available to provide for students as needed, coordinating with the liaison and other administrators to facilitate access to programs, activities and transportation, be supportive and encouraging the students to do well, encouraging parental involvement even while families are in a shelter, and having a mentor for shelter/foster children who are entering a new school so that they can adjust to their new environment. These are just a few of the suggestions given to schools as they attempt to do all that they can for students in need. Anyone in need of assistance should contact Mrs. Thompson’s office at 508 799-3620.

I believe that a city defines itself in the way we assist those in need of service. We need to consider other ways of assisting our children such as establishing a center coordinated by United Way and the Worcester Public Schools. This way the public could donate supplies such as clothing, soap and other toiletry items. Most importantly, we need to find mentors for those children so that they know they are not alone. Let’s not just talk about this situation, let’s do something about it! Let’s do it for the children. 

 

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