‘The strongest lifeline’: Districts struggle to find Allegheny County’s homeless students as COVID increased distance and needs

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Crayons beside child coloring.

(Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash)

These days, Christina Russell and her daughter, Mareica Anderson, are busy unpacking their new home. It’s a brighter time for the duo, who faced housing insecurity living in Pittsburgh during the fall months of 2020 amid the COVID pandemic.

“We had to go from a house to a shelter to a shelter to another shelter, you know what I mean, until we found our place where she was comfortable,” said Russell, 41.

When school began in the fall, Russell did everything she could to keep her daughter engaged and feeling a sense of normalcy despite changing living environments.

“Well, I didn't really let it affect her,” Russell said. "I kind of basically took all of it in myself. I kept her on the same schedule. I didn't change anything. The only thing that changed was living conditions.” 

Christina Russell sits with her daughter Mareica Anderson

Christina Russell and her daughter, Mareica Anderson faced housing insecurity living in Pittsburgh during the fall months of 2020 amid the COVID pandemic. When school began in the fall, Russell did everything she could to keep her daughter engaged and feeling a sense of normalcy despite changing living environments.

Eight-year-old Anderson is a second grader at Agora Cyber Charter Schools, so although she attended virtual school for a few years before the pandemic and didn’t need to adapt to e-learning, her experience trying to learn amid housing instability is similar to thousands of kids across Allegheny County. 

If basic needs aren’t met — housing, food, clothing — class can be the last thing on a student’s mind. And in the era of remote or hybrid instruction and a pandemic creating unprecedented economic hardship for many, students facing homelessness are especially vulnerable. Despite districts working to provide technology to all students, they often lack a stable place to learn, making it difficult to stay connected to school

School districts in Allegheny County and beyond have long employed liaisons to identify students experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity. Their efforts have only been made more complex under the conditions of social distancing, quarantine and virtual learning.  

District liaisons have sought diverse techniques to identify students, such as utilizing online learning platforms and social media to connect with families. Still, without traditional strategies, such as noting transportation needs or in-person signs of housing insecurity, district liaisons struggled to identify students and assist them in the first year of COVID learning. It was especially difficult for those whose districts remained in virtual learning environments.

Numbers down, needs up

Schools are a central resource for youth facing homelessness. Districts are obligated by law to find them and address education-related needs.

“Schools are the strongest lifeline for these students,” said Barbara Duffield, executive director of national advocacy group SchoolHouse Connection. “They're actively looking for them, required to serve them in a way that no other community agency is.”

Under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, all public schools are required to identify unhoused students and provide them with services such as transportation and school supplies. Districts receive federal aid to support homeless students. The burden is on schools to find families, not on families to self-identify. As such, districts have McKinney-Vento homeless liaisons.

Pennsylvania schools have a history of under-identification of students experiencing homelessness, and the pandemic has made it more difficult.

In fall 2020, there was a 28% decrease, or roughly 420,000 fewer, homeless children and youth identified across the nation, compared to fall 2019, according to a 2020 survey by SchoolHouse Connection and Poverty Solutions.

The county’s largest school district, Pittsburgh Public Schools, identified 955 students experiencing homelessness as of April 1. Last year at this time, the district had identified 2,180 housing-insecure students. 

It doesn’t mean that students are better off. Across Allegheny County, fewer students facing homelessness are being identified by school districts, even as more schools returned to hybrid models and despite active efforts by district liaisons. 

The Allegheny Intermediate Unit [AIU] identified about 5,600 children across the region facing homelessness last year.

“Across the board, we're kind of hearing that our numbers are down a bit this year,” said Nicole Anderson, Region IV coordinator for the Education for Children & Youth Experiencing Homelessness program at the AIU. She did not have an exact number to provide. “I’m not sure, to be honest with you.”

Anderson said without the need for transportation, families may be less inclined to share information about their living situation.

“And if we don't identify them, we can't serve,” Anderson said. “… If we can't identify the needs, then how are we able to kind of help them through those gaps?”

The Homeless Children’s Education Fund [HCEF] has spent this year working with schools on best practices and new, creative ways to identify students.

Carlos Carter, executive director of HCEF, said prior to COVID, the organization served more than 800 students in the county with programming and 2,000 through a backpack program. But in 2020, it served less than half that, “due to the inability to do some programs and a drop in referral and identification due to school being closed and students not being identified,” Carter said. 

With the ongoing economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and a murky future when it comes to rent and eviction relief, as well as direct relief to families, liaisons and advocates suspect needs are on the rise. 

A search for solutions

District homeless liaisons were keenly aware that need was increasing over the summer months heading into the fall, but when the fall came, counts were down. It forced many of them to search for other strategies to find students facing homelessness in the COVID environment. 

Kellie Irwin, home and school visitor for the Woodland Hills School District, works in her office at Woodland Hills Junior/Senior High School. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Kellie Irwin, home and school visitor for the Woodland Hills School District, works in her office at Woodland Hills Junior/Senior High School. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Kellie Irwin, the McKinney-Vento district liaison for Woodland Hill School District, said she doubts that the numbers of housing-insecure students are actually down.

With all students in school buildings, staff are trained to look for signs such as a student making a reference to their living situation.

“It sometimes comes from a student saying something to a teacher or school staff, that we need to contact the family. Sometimes it's a family just calling and saying, ‘This is what's going on,’” said Irwin, also the district’s home and school visitor, or social worker.

The roughly 3,200 Woodland Hills students have been completely virtual through March.

District liaisons connect with families through direct phone calls, the Schoology learning platform, social media and sometimes home visits. She said the district identified 114 students facing homelessness by late March, an uptick from February when they were aware of 95 students facing homelessness. State data showed nearly 170 students were identified at the district in 2018-19 counts. 

District liaisons work to be sensitive to stigma, emotions and trauma around the experience that comes with facing homelessness. 

Kellie Irwin is the home and school visitor for the Woodland Hills School District. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

The school sometimes isn't the first place they want to tell, like all the bad things that might be going on in their life. They don't want to be judged,” Irwin said. “That's a very personal story to share with someone that you might not even know.”

Figuring out how to reach families in the pandemic takes additional considerations. “How do we do it without putting a target on someone like calling and saying, ‘Hey, are you homeless?’ You know what I mean? No one wants to answer that question or feel like you're being targeted.”

Instead, they will ask families, “Has anything changed with your housing? Do you need to change your address? So it's giving them the opportunity to share information, but not asking it in any kind of judgmental way,” Irwin said.

McKinney-Vento district liaison Kristen James said she knows there’s more need than liaisons are able to identify.

James is the homeless liaison at McKeesport Area School District where students have attended school in person five days a week this school year. The district has identified about the same amount of students compared to years past, which she attributed to students being in the buildings. 

“We are able to have a better pulse on where our students are and identify students that we know are in need or that we might hear are in need,” James said.

The district (student population of about 3,100) identified about 30 students facing homelessness in 2018-19, according to state data.

As liaison, James directs families to services countywide from the Salvation Army to the McKeesport Housing Authority to help them secure a place to live. The district also provides resources directly, like school clothes, toiletries, backpacks and more.

“Literally anything they might need,” she said.

Historically overrepresented and underfunded  

Black youth are disproportionately impacted by youth homelessness. Black families represent 54% of families living in homeless shelters. It can often translate to negative academic and life outcomes. Nearly 70% of U.S. high school students experiencing homelessness perform below grade level in state reading assessments, and 80% perform below grade level in math. Only 64% of students experiencing homelessness graduate high school on time, compared to 85% of students nationwide, according to national data.

Duffield said along with students of color, students with disabilities and English language learners are also disproportionately impacted by youth homelessness.

The system and program in place for identifying and assisting students experiencing homelessness is woefully underfunded and under supported, she said.

“The historical neglect of the federal programs that give homeless students a right to an education is part of why there's under-identification,” Duffield said. “The numbers are not reflective of total need by any respect.”

States provided educational agencies an average of $76.50 per student in 2017-18 to support students experiencing homelessness and their education.

The two COVID relief packages in 2020 came without direct aid for students facing homelessness.

The Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan includes $800 million for school districts to support the education of children experiencing homelessness. Still, housing-insecure students are in need of more direct federal aid, advocates said.

“It's an overdue recognition,” Duffield said, “but it is a recognition of the unique vulnerabilities of these students as they have lost their homes and also their schools.”

TyLisa C. Johnson covers education for PublicSource. She can be reached at tylisa@publicsource.org.

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