Students experiencing homelessness remain hard to identify after year with remote education

By CHRISTINA CLARK

christina.clark@leaderpub.com

SOUTHWEST MICHIGAN – Throughout the pandemic, educators and students have navigated new challenges both in classrooms and during remote instruction. The challenges have disrupted the opportunities for educators have eyes on students most days of the week. One of the concerns this brought up was uncertainty about the identifying students at risk
of homelessness.

Students in kindergarten through 12th grades can be identified as needing various levels of assistance through school staff. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act is a federal law that works to protect educational rights of students who may be experiencing homelessness or are precariously housed. The official counts are reported to the Michigan Department of Education.

For students identified in schools, assistance would come through a regional office, like the one that Sarah Dye, the McKinney-Vento grant coordinator for the Berrien RESA.

There is a spectrum of assistance available to those identified through the McKinney-Vento program might see.

The program can assist students with accessing transportation, with bus tokens or gas vouchers, help with school supplies, clothing and the cost of physicals needed to participate in sports. One of the big needs it addresses can be precarious housing and homelessness.

“The actual definition is children and youth who lack a fixed, regular, adequate night-time residence,” Dye said.

The pandemic school years

As the 2020-2021 school year’s final count of students wrapped up in June, Dye shed some light on how the pandemic had impacted secure housing for school-aged students.

In January, Brenna Bell, an HR generalist with knowledge of McKinney-Vento, said the count at the time for students experiencing homelessness throughout Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties was around 1,101 students. In 2019-2020 year, there had been 1,350 students identified.

Dye said that after the final June count, there is still a downward trend in overall numbers. Throughout the second half of the 2021 school year, more students were identified and Dye said the final number was “almost 1,400.”

“Overall, we are still down from normal, but there were a few more [students] identified from the spring due to being in person again,” she said. “As well as the teachers and districts try, it’s hard to get that contact with students sometimes. Even with a Zoom call, without a camera on, it’s hard to gauge what is going on.”

Helping the hungry

One thing that was taken off the plates of parents over the past year has been access to school lunches.

“We’re in a situation where schools went to 100 percent free and reduced lunches,” Dye said. “There are meals provided through the summer and whole school year. All students could eat lunch for free.”

While this action made it harder for some tracking to be done, Dye said ultimately it was positive for families. Families who may not have qualified, but were struggling, could access the aid and have a bit of stress relieved from their wallets.

“Once students are back in school [full time], they might see the information that can help them self-identify,” Dye said. “We have more eyes on them to help us make those connections that there are services available if they are experiencing any issues.”

Dye said that each school system in the tri-county area has worked hard to keep in contact with students throughout the pandemic.

“[Educators] can get them for a couple days, but then they might disappear for a couple weeks,” Dye said.

There are many factors that may be red flags for workers in schools to watch for, though the instability has been more difficult to pinpoint.

“There’s more food insecurities, with the struggle and loss of jobs,” Dye said. “Evictions weren’t supposed to happen, but [families] may be doubled up on someone’s couch or quarantined at someone’s house. That’s a whole new level of stress.”

What the shelter is seeing

While the numbers are reporting at between an 18 to 20 percent lower rate of homelessness by the numbers, Reshella Hawkins, shelter manager for Emergency Shelter Services in Benton Harbor, the only homeless shelter in Berrien County, said there has been an increase in families seeking services.

“A lot of families were doubled up during the pandemic. People were more accepting to keeping the families safe and having other family members stay with them,” Hawkins said. “That limited the number of people coming to the shelter.”

Currently, the shelter is housing 15 children, along with their families.

“It was a great jump for us. I think the families are overwhelmed,” she said.

At ESS, Hawkins said she has seen the mental health impacts, strain of being doubled up with family, and overall stress of not being able to go about business as usual in families.

“Having no stability, in this pandemic, has really caused an increase in mental illness even with children. Kids are used to being social butterflies,” she said.

She noted her own experience with her family being in a stable environment, and still facing the challenges that came along with virtual learning and social isolation.

Though the system has not been overwhelmed by requests, and is still within a normal range of requests, Hawkins said the shelter saw an increase in requests for assistance over the past couple of months.

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