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June 25, 2024
ASCD Blog

Creating Stability for Unhoused Students

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By prioritizing school safety and stability for students experiencing homelessness, we increase the chance they'll attend more regularly.
EquitySchool Culture
Elementary aged students climbing on to a school bus to head to school
Credit: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock
Where are the children? That has been the question many teachers, administrators, districts, and national leaders are asking since returning to in-person learning after the pandemic. National headlines remind us that absenteeism has risen at an alarming rate—and so, too, has the number of unhoused students within school communities. There is a correlation between absenteeism and homelessness, and as educators, we can build a supportive community and provide the necessary care to help students navigate both circumstances. 
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported a 12 percent increase in overall homelessness from 2022 to 2023, which includes families and children who live in temporary housing, whose nightly sleeping arrangements are in places not designed for regular sleeping, who are living in substandard conditions, or who are classified as migrant children, according to the federal definition of “homeless children and youths.”
We know that when students miss school, they miss more than an attendance requirement. They miss out on instruction, work, socialization, meals, and other essential, and even life-sustaining, functions that school provides. For unhoused students, living situations can change multiple times throughout the week and even within the day. Students and their families may not know where they are sleeping at night, what they are eating during the day, or how they will take care of their personal needs.
This lack of stability negatively impacts students’ access to regular school transportation, resulting in missed days. When they do make it to school, housing instability can impact students’ capacity to complete the work they receive, concentrate on tasks, socialize, and participate in extracurricular activities. Moreover, many students experiencing homelessness do not receive adequate rest, nutritious meals, access to proper hygiene, and more.

We can create environments that make students—and their families—feel safe and stable while they are with us. 

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When students are facing this degree of instability in their lives, it begs the question, what can we do while they are with us at school? In all the different levels of K-12 education that I served, I prioritized making school a haven of safety and stability for transient and unhoused students. As a teacher, this meant having a drawer of snacks and personal items that all students knew was “theirs,” as well as an understanding that my classroom was a safe space to eat lunch or have downtime. As an administrator, I rallied teachers and team members to create systems and processes to support the needs of students as their daily conditions changed. And as a chief academic officer and superintendent, I worked with the community to help with resources such as food pantries, reliable transportation, and tutoring to ensure we closed gaps in students’ academic, social, and physical needs.
What can you do in your school? How can you make unhoused students feel safe and supported when they are in school?

Establish Communication

We can begin by opening lines of communication with families in ways that are confidential, caring, and compassionate. Families can experience shame and embarrassment that lands heavily on children—and those are big feelings for students at any age to navigate. Handling housing information with confidentiality can decrease shame and increase a family's sense of security. Confidential communication means that only the people directly involved in supporting the student—like the school’s homeless liaison, teachers, or bus drivers—need to know the student’s situation. Establishing confidentiality builds the trust necessary to partner with families to create as much consistency and stability in students’ lives as possible. When establishing these systems of communication with families, educators can ask: 
  • What adults can we communicate with outside of the normal protocols? (For example, students may be living at a friend's house and using that family’s home phone, or they may have a rotation of relatives they can stay with, or they may have adults that can call the school on their behalf if needed.)  
  • What is the best way to send work to the student when they are not at school? Is email or a device app a possibility?  
  • With whom should the family communicate if a new morning or afternoon arrangement needs to be made because of an unexpected transition? 

Leverage the Liaison

Opening these lines of communication helps us better understand what families need, allowing us to communicate among our team and school community with greater accuracy—and without bias. Any student experiencing homelessness is in a sensitive situation, so we want to make sure that we address present needs without creating additional challenges by reacting to misinformation, biases, or misconceptions. We do not want to overreach by providing resources that will be burdensome or unneeded—such as clothing that doesn’t fit or food that the family can’t carry or store. We also do not want to underreach and not provide necessary items such as electronics or textbooks for fear of them being sold or lost. Establishing a clear, accurate, and unbiased understanding of how to support students is key because how we communicate informs how we serve our unhoused and transient students.

Establishing a clear, accurate, and unbiased understanding of how to support students is key.

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All districts are required to have a homeless liaison, via the district office or a local staff person, per the McKinney-Vento Act. This person is responsible for identifying and ensuring unhoused students are enrolled and have access to resources to facilitate academic success. If your school’s homeless liaison is not a part of your school team, it really helps to appoint a school-based person—such as a counselor, administrator, or team member—to serve as a designee in this capacity. A homeless liaison or designee can provide accurate information about the condition of unhoused students, provide guidelines on how to communicate about the students, and also set up systems of collaboration to establish appropriate supports for them. The liaison hosts regular trainings throughout the school year to support school teams on remaining up-to-date on policy changes and expectations regarding unhoused students and absenteeism expectations. This position also sets up collaborations between families and the school to ensure everyone knows how to best serve the student.   
In addition, we know that since living conditions can change quickly throughout the school year, it is important to stay abreast of when students experience homelessness. Continuing to survey families and reaching out to families to assess needs throughout the year are responsibilities the liaison can facilitate. With this information, the school can prepare appropriate support for students in alignment with their needs.

Collaborate with Community

There are ways schools can collaborate both internally and with community partners to address student needs that may otherwise go unmet due to unstable living conditions: 
  • Within our classrooms, we can implement interventions that extend instructional time and allow additional practice for transient students.  
  • Schools can partner with community organizations to offer after-school care and homework assistance that may provide consistency throughout the day. 
  • Schools can offer extracurricular clubs and sports activities to support student well-being and socialization in a stable environment. 
  • School can operate a food pantry where students can access food and personal items. We did this on our campus with donations from local churches, and families also contributed new and used uniform items. 
  • To help students get to campus, schools can establish relationships with local taxi and transportation agencies. While the McKinney-Vento Act requires that transportation options be provided to unhoused students, this becomes more difficult when students are not consistently in one location. Creating a flexible busing policy, for example, can allow transient students to ride the bus from their housing locations. 

Prioritizing Safety and Stability

The factors that lead to homelessness are numerous. As we come to learn about students' circumstances, it is important not to share information with those who do not need it, not to add information that may be based on our opinions or personal experiences, and to ensure that information is used in support of creating a collaborative system of stability and safety. With care, communication, and collaborative systems to support their needs, we can create environments that make students—and their families—feel safe and stable while they are with us.
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