Hidden Homelessness: The Mental Health and Homelessness Crises are Intrinsically Tied. Federal Support Has Never Been More Critical. [Christina’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.

Christina Ramos is a Professional Social Services Liaison for Homeless and Unaccompanied Youth at Conroe Independent School District in Montgomery County, Texas — a role created by the McKinney-Vento Act, a United States federal law providing rights and services to children and youth experiencing homelessness. She identifies homeless and unaccompanied youth, engages in community outreach with agencies and organizations providing awareness and education, advocates for her students and families, and teaches them how to advocate for themselves.

In our Q&A with Christina, she spoke to the devastating long-term impact she sees homelessness have on the mental health and academic success of the youth and families she works with — trauma that has only compounded amid the pandemic. She describes the profound and disheartening difficulty she faces in connecting child, youth, and families experiencing homelessness to services and support they are entitled to, particularly because of misalignment in federal policy. This difficulty of access to resources is due to a number of barriers she speaks to, one such being the unaligned definitions of homelessness used by public schools and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) programs.

This is Christina’s story.

What are the most rewarding and challenging parts of your job as a Liaison for Homeless and Unaccompanied Youth?

I have a passion and strong belief in helping/advocating for marginalized groups. Growing up as a first generation Mexican American in Southern California, I experienced many of the same challenges my students and families face today. Their story is my story. Through perseverance and determination coupled with support from family, friends, and community, I managed to change the trajectory of my life and in turn of my family. I understand the importance of small incremental success. I’ve also seen so many success stories from the young people I work with — the first generation student going to college and a single mom in a shelter moving into her own place. However, the enduring reward is the connections and relationships I built. At the basis of all the work I do, the human connections I create are long lasting and impactful. The work I do today helps me do better tomorrow.

The challenging part of my job is dealing with “red tape” and bureaucracy. Many of the agencies tasked with helping and supporting my students and families have barriers to their services. For example, a local agency requires proof of residency in order to access services. Unfortunately, many of my families lack proper documentation, thus denying them critical support.

Many of the agencies tasked with helping and supporting my students and families have barriers to their services.

How does homelessness impact the students you work with?

Homelessness correlates with higher incidence of mental health issues and these implications have long term effects. In my work with high school students, I have learned that students respond to authenticity and genuineness. Students will not learn unless someone shows them that they matter and that someone cares. If a student is falling asleep in class because they slept in a car, living in a shelter, or hotel, that student is less likely to absorb any content. If a student is hungry, he/she is likely to be able to focus on content. If a student does not have appropriate clothing, he/she is likely not to attend school.

I’ve been working with a young family with elementary age kids for the past two years. Both the mother and father had jobs, and the family rented a nice home for their growing family. Then suddenly, the dad loses his job and the family can no longer afford their rental. They were evicted and have lived in hotels for the past two years. Both parents are working and have the financial resources to pay for a rental, but because of the eviction on their record, no one will rent to them and the strain of living in a hotel is evident in the kids. They constantly miss school, in spite of transportation being in place. They have behavioral issues, lack focus, and often fall asleep in class. Furthermore, lengthy homelessness among youth is linked with higher risk of high school dropout, which impacts future employment prospects, higher risk of substance use, higher risk of abuse, higher risk of mental health challenges. All of these factors ultimately construct generational patterns among families.

Mental health is correlated with homelessness. I’ve seen this in all age groups and families, regardless of race or ethnicity.

How has COVID-19 affected your students?

In a typical year, the number one request from families is help finding affordable housing. This past year, the request changed to mental health access. Parents and guardians are asking for therapists for their children as well as for themselves. High school students are also requesting help at a higher rate. We already see a disparity in identification rates among Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. The pandemic has highlighted disparities among People of Color in many ways. Homeless students and families have a higher rate of job and income loss. Homeless students have greater barriers to accessing technology and reliable wifi. Virtual students were often left home alone while parent(s) went off to work, so kids had very little support or guidance with homework, which leads to lower academic outcomes. The pandemic increased barriers with our ability to identify students, which led to lower identification rates. High school students took on “essential” jobs to help sustain their families. In many cases, high school seniors focused their post secondary plans based on needs and security. Families that were already “doubled up” were being forced to leave or move which created more insecurity. I expect a continuation of these issues with the new school year, in addition to supporting virtual students returning to in person learning after a tumultuous year.

We know that prolonged homelessness increases the risk of many other factors, such as high school dropout rates, substance use disorders, mental health challenges, and the list goes on.

Do you see child, youth, and family homelessness tied to other issues? If so, which?

Mental health is correlated with homelessness. I’ve seen this in all age groups and families, regardless of race or ethnicity. I have a background in Mental Health Counseling. In families that are identified as homeless year after year, there tends to be higher incidence of substance use and generational trauma, such as domestic violence, and lack of high school completion by parents and grandparents. For example, I worked with a senior this year that comes from an abusive family. Her father was an alcoholic, mother suffered from serious (untreated) mental health issues. Neither parent had graduated from high school. The unhealthy patterns began to repeat within the children. Several of the kids were failing, with high rates of absences. My student lacked consistent support or guidance from her family to focus beyond high school. She was at risk of not graduating high school. With persistent support (sometimes daily), guidance, creative tutoring, and the full support of her high school, she graduated and is on her way to a 4-year university. She will be the first on both sides (several generations) of her family to go to college. This is an example of the impacts of generational trauma. Which is why we need to look at and work with homeless students from a different lens — a lens that is holistic and overarching. It is imperative that we include the emotional and social needs with a child’s academic needs.

Do you have the resources, support, and funding you need to support your students?

I never have enough resources or money to adequately support my students and families. Which is why I have to be creative and resourceful in my work. For example, I had an athlete that needed contact lenses in order to play football. Contact lenses are perceived as a “want” as opposed to a “need.” I reached out to various organizations including optometrists in our community. No one was willing to donate or offer a discount. I posted on social media a request for donations. I received enough funds to purchase my student a year’s worth of contact lenses — and he is now off to college on an athletic scholarship. I partnered with a local church to provide Dorm packs for approximately 20 homeless students (first generation). We utilize Purposity to provide new clothing, shoes, school supplies, and other essentials. On a daily basis, I am reaching out to the community for resources/funding in order to support my students/families. With proper funding, we could do so much more, for example send a student to a debate conference, or cheer camp, or orchestra/band camp. I’ve had many instances where my students received scholarships for athletics or fine arts allowing them to access higher education. Encouraging and supporting our students in “extracurricular activities’’ can afford them greater opportunities post high school, but the more time I spend procuring resources, the less I am available to be present for my students and families.

…the MV and HUD definitions must be aligned.

What is your experience with trying to access support for families and youth from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) programs?

The McKinney-Vento Act’s (MV) definition of homelessness is broad (which is great) and overarching. The fact that HUD’s definition does not align with MV creates more barriers to supporting homeless students and families. For example, the family I mentioned previously is unable to access HUD housing because they have lived in the same hotel for over a year. We know that prolonged homelessness increases the risk of many other factors, such as high school dropout rates, substance use disorders, mental health challenges, and the list goes on. Connecting vulnerable families to affordable housing helps mitigate some of these factors. Providing students with stable housing can improve academic performance for students and minimize financial stress for families.

What is your “call-to-action” for leaders and policymakers to support students experiencing homelessness?

First and foremost, the MV and HUD definitions must be aligned. This alone would create better opportunities for our homeless students and families. More funding for increased training and education, staff and personnel, and social workers. Improve coordination of services between school districts and government/community resources. Update policies related to evictions. An eviction record for homeless families has far more implications than other groups. It limits the ability to access stable housing, which in turn creates turmoil and vulnerability in our students, higher risk of mobility, poor academic performance, and increased absences and tardies, which we know are indicators of high school incompletion. Lastly, more involvement and awareness Homeless students and families are truly our invisible students. As such, they are often left to the wayside. More transitional programs for students bridge transitions between high school and secondary plans. Programs that promote independent living, teach important life skills and empower students to be successful. Our responsibility should not end once a student graduates from high school. We must improve our coordination of services beyond high school.

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