Homeless coordinators for area school districts help homeless students enroll and continue their education.
Nearly 6,000 children in Oklahoma are homeless, according to a report from a homeless advocacy organization released last year, and for those trying to enroll in school, the lack of a permanent address — or any address, for that matter — can be a problem.
But that’s where area district homeless liaisons can help. Each school district is required by federal law to have one, and his or her main goal is to facilitate the enrollment of homeless students and ensure they have all the necessary tools and supplies to receive a proper education. Students who are homeless can receive benefits, such as free lunch and school supplies, as a result of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Reauthorized as part of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, McKinney-Vento was originally passed in 1987 as the Stewart B. McKinney Education for Homeless Children and Youth Act.
“What we do in particular is try to remove barriers, things that would prohibit students from entering in and finishing school, like not having records,” says Myriam Puleo, coordinator fro the homeless and visiting counselors for Union Public Schools. “We help those students along.”
To be considered homeless, a student doesn’t necessarily have to live at a local shelter or on the street. Doubling up with friends or living in a motel or car also classify a student as homeless.
Conversely, having a house in another state but living in Oklahoma without one does not make someone homeless, says Debra Ensminger, director of student assessment for Jenks Public Schools. Ensminger also directs the Title 1 funds for Jenks Public Schools. Title 1 funds are federal funds that schools receive to assist low achieving students, including homeless students. On occasion, families try to enroll a child as homeless at Jenks when they have a home in another city or state or a Section 8 voucher for subsidized housing.
“You have to be without a place to live,” Ensminger says.
Last year, Jenks saw 44 homeless students. So far this school year, 19 students without adequate housing have enrolled.
The primary challenge for many families is proving residency, especially if they live in a homeless shelter, Puleo says.
During the 2009-2010 school year, Union enrolled 739 students without a home. This is an improvement from the previous year, when 970 homeless students attended Union schools. But Puleo cautions that the numbers are a “moving target” because families frequently move in and out of the district.
Some of the hardest students to assist are unaccompanied youth, or “couch kids” — older students who are living on their own or with friends. Their situation is volatile and most don’t freely approach school officials to tell them they are homeless, Puleo says.
“Most of the time, we hear (about them) through principals, counselors and teachers,” she says. “Those kids are the most at risk. Those are the ones we go after hard.”
Puleo says unaccompanied youth usually have good attendance, though, because school is the one constant in their lives.
“Many times that’s where they eat; that’s where they make friends,” she says.
Loida Delgado, Tulsa Public Schools’ coordinator for parent involvement and homeless education, says she is noticing more families traveling from other states to Oklahoma in hopes of finding work, only to find themselves homeless. Right now, Delgado estimates that more than 700 homeless children have enrolled in TPS so far this school year, with the numbers continually increasing. At the end of the last school year, TPS counted 2,600 homeless youth among the student population.
For Delgado, the hardest part of her job is not being able to help each student get the one thing they need.
“I can’t get them a home,” she says.