Hidden Homelessness: Why Districts Need Increased and Sustained Funding To Support Students Experiencing Homelessness [Tyler’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.

The McKinney-Vento Act’s Education for Homeless Children and Youth program (EHCY) is the only federal education program that removes barriers to the enrollment, attendance, and success of homeless children and youth in school. No other federal program has the responsibility for and expertise on finding, engaging, and serving these students, and upholding their educational rights. Despite being an essential piece of legislation pertaining to the education of over 1.2 million children and youth experiencing homelessness across the nation, EHCY has long been overlooked and underfunded. The American Rescue Plan Act, enacted in March 2021, provided $800 million in funding specifically dedicated to support the identification, enrollment, and school participation of children and youth experiencing homelessness, including through wrap-around services. These funds, known as American Rescue Plan — Homeless Children and Youth Funds (ARP-HCY). This funding has already made a tremendous, positive impact on students experiencing homelessness; however, this program requires permanent funding. We recently spoke with Tyler Shoesmith, the Senior Director of Student Leadership and Well-Being at North East Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas. In our Q&A, he highlights the need for increased and sustained American Rescue Plan — Homeless Children and Youth (ARP-HCY) funding in his district for personnel to support the mental health of his students experiencing homelessness, as well as technology to increase attendance, connect with families, lower mobility, and increase access to housing and service navigators. Tyler knows firsthand that increased and sustained investment in Education for Homeless Children and Youth funding is an essential component of any meaningful effort to achieve educational equity and to ensure today’s homeless children and youth do not become tomorrow’s homeless adults.

This is Tyler’s story.

Can you tell us about your role?

I wear a lot of hats. For about 12 years, I’ve been a McKinney Vento liaison (managing our homeless kiddos across the district) and have incorporated other departments along the way — including behavior threat assessments and mitigating those threats across the district; behavior and crisis counseling and leadership programs; a school-age parenting program; the district’s food pantry; and I manage a partnership with the San Antonio Police Department in a program called Handle With Care, which ensures that every time an officer identifies a kiddo at a crime scene, the school is alerted before the kiddo enters school the next morning that they experienced a traumatic event and that they need to be handled with care. We also work closely with our communications department to get information out about homelessness in our district, ensuring that folks have the opportunity to support their own North East students within North East through food drives, hygiene drives, monetary donations, and general awareness about eviction prevention and updates on the moratorium. I also work closely with the South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless (SARAH), serving as the Chair of the Youth Homelessness Working Group, where we received YHDP (Youth Homelessness Demonstration Project) which provided SARAH with $6.7 million to end youth homelessness in San Antonio. I am now a Board member of SARAH and able to utilize that position to help bring in additional influence and support for homeless youth in our district and city-wide, to make sure we have coordinated efforts in conjunction with our community partners that support our families.

Having the recent American Rescue Plan Act (APR) funds are critical — not only for helping us sustain the supportive network to identify families who are experiencing homelessness and bring them back into the fold, but also for creating sustainable systems that will help to subsist even when funding dissipates at some point.

One of the things I’ve found in my work is that there is a massive undercurrent of families experiencing homelessness that we have not identified in districts across the nation and our city, because kids have been able to remotely learn for almost 18 months while their families have walked out of leases without notifying their district. When that happens, families leave their McKinney-Vento rights on the table. Typically, in Bexar County, we have about 500 eviction filings per week, and now we’re about 2,000 per week. We are working hard with our communications team to make sure those families know their rights and know how to access funds.

Having the recent American Rescue Plan Act (APR) funds are critical — not only for helping us sustain the supportive network to identify families who are experiencing homelessness and bring them back into the fold, but also for creating sustainable systems that will help to subsist even when funding dissipates at some point.

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

Homelessness is tied to every equity issue. Our district has really focused directly on mental health. We were lucky to be part of a pilot program, The Texas Child Health Access Through Telemedicine, which funded free psychiatric care and counseling for kiddos. Our district is considered a superuser; we had nearly 900 kiddos served last year. It’s not a magic wand, but it’s an important first step. Further, everyone in our district has been trained in trauma-informed care, but in our department, social-emotional learning has been fully integrated. With students experiencing homelessness, you’re looking at years of development of fragmented neuro-pathways that haven’t developed in a proper manner due to trauma. Mental health counseling allows them to re-train their response to adverse situations, pulling them out of the “fight or flight” reaction. When students enter “fight or flight” situations, we see them enter our campus’ disciplinary process. So whether you’re getting into a fight or using drugs, they are engaging in unsafe, unhealthy coping mechanisms for their trauma. Overall, we try to put out fires before they come in front of us — providing enough support for our students experiencing homelessness before they encounter additional challenges that are a direct result of their trauma.

What are the pressing unmet needs facing children and youth experiencing homelessness in your community? Do you have the resources, support, and funding you need to support the children, youth, and family, you serve?

Sustained, annual ARP-HCY funding designated for homeless students would give us the opportunity to provide sustainable positions that we would not be able to fund otherwise. Secondly, with more funding, we can fund innovative solutions to increase attendance, increase connectivity with families, lower mobility, and increase access to housing and service navigators.

Our number one deficit is having funds available to hire additional boots on the ground. Having people who have the relationships with families to ensure families are connected to resources is critical. We have been able to buy materials for our students, like school backpacks, which is all helpful, but the most meaningful impact for us is to have people who are trained and skilled at working with needy families. We also need longitudinal support to sustain the position so we can hire individuals who don’t have to worry about what happens to their role when the grant closes in two years. That will require legislation and promotion of awareness of this need for long-term, supportive funding streams that will allow for additional support.

If I had the funds, I’d like to hire a homeless liaison who has a 51% focus on mental health — likely a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a social work background, which would allow us to provide mental health counseling and referrals for students who go to discretionary alternative education placements (which is where students go if they get in trouble for fighting or drug use). Through the pandemic, we also found that we work with a lot of families who are computer illiterate and their ability to access simple forms online — to enter into homeless prevention services — are very limited. Having individuals to support families’ navigation of these services is the crisis for us. I can hire someone, but if they think they won’t have a job in two years, then they aren’t going to stay or not even apply.

I am also hoping to secure funds to provide mobile hotspots for our kiddos that are also cell phones, and funding for a housing navigator.

In the last year and a half, we’ve talked a lot about the digital divide, but the fact is that many of our families don’t have access to consistent technology. Oftentimes, our families have phones for a month or two at a time. For the district, it’s really important to have one phone line to communicate with families. If we can dedicate funds that would allow us to connect to the parent anytime, and parents will also have increased access to banking, online grocery and basic needs shopping, and resources and services. A phone can anchor families to communication.

The housing navigator I’d like to develop would support families who are entering coordinated entry with access to housing. If they can navigate it on their own, they can identify housing in the attendance area of their child’s school. This will help create continuity of education with that school-family that they have. That would slow down mobility, and if we can decrease mobility just a little bit, and we’re able to solve the larger, systemic issues, keeping people in one place for a period of time allows us to create touchpoints for interventions that I talked about initially. When those interventions work, we’re able to create greater change for families.

Check out the other stories:

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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.

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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.

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