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How Teachers, Adults, and Legislators Can Respond to Student Homelessness

What should teachers do if they suspect a student might be homeless? What about non-educators? Better yet, what can governors and legislators do to fight youth homelessness on a broad scale in their states and communities?

These are a few questions that a panel of experts tackled at SXSWEDU, where a group of nonprofits announced the Education Leads Home campaign, a first-of-its-kind national campaign that will focus exclusively on addressing the educational needs of the 1.3 million homeless students enrolled in America’s public schools.

“It's really important [for teachers] to ask students what they need,” said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, one of the nonprofits leading the campaign. “Ask what would help them and don’t make any assumptions based on what you might know.”

This is the approach that helped Jamie Warren overcome homelessness in her own life. Today, Warren is a senior at Wayland Baptist University and a Pre-K teaching assistant with Shallowater Independent Schools in Shallowater, Texas. When she experienced homelessness while in high school, a teacher reached out and asked about her situation.

“She talked to me about a lot of things,” Warren said. “It made me feel very comfortable with her before she said, ‘Okay, I need you to tell me what's going on.’”

Warren said her teacher also made it clear that Warren wouldn’t get in trouble or have to leave school if she told the truth.

“I didn't know that,” Warren said. “I thought, ‘I'm going to be kicked out of school.’ And if they were going to make me go to different school I was not going to finish high school.”

Advice for Adults: Contact Liaison Offices and Offer to Help

Teachers aren’t the only ones who can make a difference in a homeless student’s life. Warren said that non-educators have a critical role to play, explaining that the majority of help that schools in Shallowater receive for homeless students comes from the community. 

She spoke of homeless student liaisons, people that connect homeless families and youth to resources and help homeless students with school. By a law called the McKinney-Vento Act, all school districts are required to have them.

Many homeless students are uncomfortable talking about it, so it’s important teachers make them feel safe. Graph taken from Hidden in Plain Sight report.
Many homeless students are uncomfortable talking about it, so it’s important teachers make them feel safe. Graph taken from Hidden in Plain Sight report.

“Reach out to your school district liaisons and ask them what you can do to help,” Warren instructed.

Liz Cohen echoed this advice. As chief of staff for the Institute for Children Poverty and Homelessness, another organization that is leading the campaign, she said liaisons have told her about the community members they rely on.

“They have their list of the folks they call in the community, whether it's the churches or the food pantries,” Cohen said. “So get the list or help them build out their lists so they know who to go to and who they can call when they need something for a student or their family.”

Advice for Governors: Make It a Priority, Tailor Policies

As for what governors and state legislators can do, Duffield said states should first make the issue a priority. Chances are it likely intersects with other issues that states are already dealing with.

“Homelessness is a mental health issue,” Duffield said. “It's a school safety issue. It's an early childhood issue.”

After states make fighting homelessness a priority, Duffield said they should work with teachers, young people, and those on the front line to understand what the barriers are and how they might vary by state.

“The issues are going to be different,” Duffield said. “So talk to the people who are working directly with families and young people—really listen and really talk to people on the front lines to find out what needs to happen at the state level.”

Education Leads Home is led by SchoolHouse Connection, the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness (ICPH), Civic Enterprises, and America’s Promise Alliance.  To get updates—sign up to receive news from the campaign. To learn more about the state of homeless students, read the report Hidden in Plain Sight: Homeless Students in America’s Public Schools