Hidden Homelessness: Education is a Right — And for Youth Who Are Homeless, Federal Support Is a Lifeline [Jill’s Story]

Hidden Homelessness: Why child, youth, and family homelessness is the crisis we cannot ignore is a series developed by SchoolHouse Connection featuring stories and voices that highlight the long-term impacts of child, youth, and family homelessness. From this first-person storytelling, we learn the ways homelessness underlies and intersects with other critical issues and therefore why this crisis requires specific, urgent, meaningful action from policymakers.

Jill Merolla is a Supervisor of Community Outreach and Grant Development and Homeless Liaison for the Warren City Schools, in a small, high poverty urban setting in northeastern Ohio. She’s worked in the district for 34 years supervising the school counselors and school community liaisons, providing professional development (including educating school staff on trauma-informed and empathetic approaches), identifying students experiencing homelessness, and ensuring all students and families — especially those in challenging circumstances — have access to community resources and have comprehensive support to thrive.

Jill knows first-hand the importance of McKinney-Vento protections and the right to an education for the lives of students experiencing homelessness. She’s seen how homelessness can disrupt a students’ ability to succeed in school — especially in the pandemic, when so many of her students could no longer attend or engage in school virtually. In her Q&A, Jill speaks about how important it is for children, youth, and families to receive multi-system support from liaisons who know them. She also dives into the critical importance of federal funds and how to equitably distribute them to the highest needs.

This is Jill’s story.

How does homelessness impact the lives and wellbeing of the children, youth, and families you work with?

Homelessness can bring insecurity to students that keeps them from fully participating in school. COVID-19 added an additional barrier, especially in Warren. Our Warren shelter housed families in a hotel outside of city limits thus requiring either multi-school transportation plans or families taking remote learning. Our district pre-Covid provided tutoring to shelter families but this year it was not safe or permitted. Those students — especially taking the remote option — often disappeared and disengaged with school staff.

Informing school staff of homeless rights is a common battle, because sometimes those students experiencing homelessness have attendance issues or try creative ways to get to school such as going on non-assigned bus routes. I get requests to get them reassigned to another school or another district which would provide even more insecurity in their lives. I have even had suburban districts try to hand over their homeless students of color because they “do not fit their district profile.”

When school staff provide the appropriate support in a timely manner, students and families experiencing homelessness can feel they are not forgotten by the school district.

What solutions do you want to see for children, youth, and families experiencing homelessness?

I feel children, youth, and families experiencing homelessness are best served when we focus on their strengths and that the staff that supports them are familiar with them. While I head multi-system support and at times do direct support for families, I prefer that school staff such as School Counselors and Liaisons who already have relationships with the families to provide direct assistance.

Can you speak to the importance of the McKinney-Vento educational rights, the impact that McKinney-Vento programs have on your students and families, and why adequate McKinney-Vento funding is critical to supporting our students and families experiencing homelessness?

In the past three years I received McKinney-Vento Funds that provided needed resources — such as clothing and school supplies. I also work with our local Continuum of Care and host McKinney-Vento partnership meetings with the two local shelters. We all try to pool our resources to assist each other. Relationships matter!

Before my role as the district’s Homeless Liaison, I was a building principal for 13 years and did not know about homeless rights. Now, I am continuing to educate all school staff on the rights of those who are experiencing homelessness. Since my appointment, I have gone from working with 2 students experiencing homelessness to over 220 students this year, and I know there are more to identify. Putting the right supports in place is vital to providing the assistance needed. Providing stability with transportation plans, support supplies, and in-school support such as food, counseling, and access to community resources can make a tremendous difference to our students. That bump in support can allow students to fully participate in all the school has to offer. When school staff provide the appropriate support in a timely manner, students and families experiencing homelessness can feel they are not forgotten by the school district.

What is your “call-to-action” for leaders and policymakers to support children, youth, and families experiencing homelessness?

The population of children, youth, and families experiencing homelessness is larger than most citizens realize and this population understandably do not want to be singled out, but want a “hand up” to provide stability for their families. The schools and their communities can assist them by providing humanistic support: after school/summer programs, food pantries, in-school nurses, summer feeding programs, experienced/trusted support personnel who can guide them to a variety of resources. The recovery actions and distribution of ARP funds can either continue to limit support from the past, or create a system that incorporates support for ALL citizens, especially those experiencing homelessness.

Check out the other stories:

This is hub of expertise and stories to drive solutions around children, youth, and family homelessness. It is a project of SchoolHouse Connection.