April 2012 Bar Bulletin
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April 2012 Bar Bulletin

Project Keeps Homeless Youth in School, Moving Ahead

By Katara Jordan


In November 2011, Caleb David was an 18-year-old in his last year of high school, but his life was far different from that of the average high school senior.1 Caleb was striving to make ends meet, coping with the suicides of several of his friends, and had been experiencing emotional and verbal abuse at home.

As a homeless teen, Caleb moved between homes of family and friends, finally ending up in a new school district. For Caleb, basketball played a central role in his life and future education opportunities. However, because of his homeless­ness, the Washington Inter­scholastic Activities Association refused to allow Caleb to play, because of a policy that essentially denied eligibility to most, if not all, homeless, unaccompanied youth. This policy violated federal law, which requires states to remove barriers to the full participation of homeless students in educational opportunities.

It is not well known that Wash­ington is home to more than 41,000 homeless children, a number that is considerably more than the state's foster care population.2 The lack of attention paid to this group is likely a reflection of the disempowerment of the families and children themselves, and the fact that no single state entity is responsible for them.

But for at least 26,000 of these children, more than 4,400 in King County alone, there is a common connection - they are enrolled in public schools and that fact alone often provides an opportunity to make a huge difference in their life trajectory.3

Public schools are often the first to notice that students are hungry, wearing the same clothes day-to-day or unstable, or have gaps in skill development. Teachers often know about students who are moving around frequently, whose families are being evicted, or who consistently have incomplete or missing homework.

Because schools see children for so much time every day, they are in a unique position to help mitigate the devastating challenges that come with homelessness, such as food insecurity, high mobility, poor physical and emotional health, and missed educational opportunities.4 Each time a homeless student changes schools, it delays his or her academic progress by four to six months.5 Homeless students are more likely than students who have stable housing to drop out of high school, to repeat a grade or to be suspended or expelled.6

The federal law that protects these students, the McKinney-Vento Home­less Education Assistance Improvements Act ("McKinney Vento"), makes a powerful difference in educational outcomes for students. However, the law is underused, often unknown in the community, and sometimes ignored by school districts. Additionally, homeless students (and their families) often do not know their rights and are unlikely to contact lawyers for help, making it difficult for organizations to provide advocacy for them.

Children are considered homeless under McKinney-Vento if they "lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence."7 This includes: sharing the housing of others due to loss of housing, economic hardship or similar reason; living in motels, hotels, trailer parks or campgrounds due to lack of adequate alternative accommodations; living in emergency or transitional shelters; awaiting foster care placement; living in cars, parks, abandoned buildings, or bus or train stations; and migratory children living in the above circumstances, among others. It also includes youth who meet the definition of homeless and who are "not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian" (unaccompanied youth).8 The law's breadth encourages the identification of youth as soon as they become homeless and recognizes the variety of difficult living circumstances that often typify homelessness.

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