Homeless at school: Federal law provides rights for students
By Eileen Persike, editor
In the 2018-19 school year, the School District of Rhinelander identified 33 of its students as homeless. That number, said district social worker and homeless liaison Mary Rudis, is low.
“One of the things I believe is that we have way more students who meet the McKinney-Vento definition of homeless than we are aware of.”
Rudis is referring to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which was signed into law by President Ronald Regan in 1987. It was the first piece of federal legislation that focused on the education of children and youth experiencing homelessness and has been strengthened through several amendments over its 32 years.
McKinney-Vento defines homeless youth as “children who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” For example, children who are at a traditional shelter such as Frederick Place or Lily’s House, or children who live in a hotel or a camper. A common situation, referred to as “double up,” involves a family moving in with another family for reason of hardship or financial difficulty.
“They have no legal right to be in that house and could be kicked out any time,” Rudis said. “We have a lot of students, even at the high school, who don’t live with their parents, who are ‘couch surfing.’ It’s hard for them to trust us and let us know they’re not living at home with their parents.”
Students fear they or their parents will get in trouble, or be reported to social services.
“We’ve been working really hard with the counselors to reach out to the kids and say, ‘you’re not going to get in trouble,’” Rudis said. “Our job is to help [them].”
In addition to providing a definition, McKinney-Vento also ensures the rights of homeless youth to enroll in and attend school by prescribing requirements. Rudis, like other homeless liaisons across the nation, has certain things she needs to do for students and their families who meet that definition.
“I can share resources with them, the county has shared their emergency food pantry information, I can share that with them, and the housing,” she said. “But I have to say honestly, these people – because they have already contacted Forward Services, they’ve already contacted Newcap, they’ve contacted social services; they’ve done all the things I can share with them.”
In Rhinelander, students who meet the homeless definition of McKinney-Vento qualify for free lunch, can have school fees waived, and get help with transportation if they are temporarily staying outside of the school district boundaries. Regardless of the status of their home address, students have the right to the same educational services that are provided to other students.
There is good news for high school students who are not living with their parents, but are couch surfing, or living in the “double up” situation. Rudis can certify them as independent students for filling out their FAFSA (federal financial aid forms) and applying for college.
What she can’t do, and what most people with no place to call home need, Rudis pointed out, is give them a place to live. There just aren’t enough affordable places in the area to live. Though families may qualify for a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) voucher, it often isn’t enough to afford local housing.
“With the HUD rules, they say two heartbeats to a room,” Rudis said. “So if I have four kids, I now need a three-bedroom. And my HUD voucher won’t cover the cost.”
Impact of homelessness on children
“I worry about the stress and the trauma,” Rudis said when asked about what most concerns her with homeless children in the Rhinelander school district. “If I don’t know where I’m going to live and my parents can’t afford where I’m going to live, do I have food? We think it doesn’t impact kids, but kids think about these things. Parents say not to, but they do.”
These things may take priority over math and language arts and school.
“I worry about the collective toll that takes on a family. For parents, too. Truly you want to give your kid safe stable housing – everybody wants that.”
For more information about the McKinney-Vento Act, or about qualifying for assistance at school, contact Mary Rudis at 715-365-9771.