Students and families of color help shape our student homelessness strategies

Published: June 25, 2019

Wanting to ensure the menu is shaped by community expertise, we interviewed the people most impacted by student homelessness.

Mother helping daughter with homeworkStudents and families of color who are experiencing homeless are the leaders of their own stories and know best what schools and shelters are doing that both hinders and supports them on their paths to educational and housing stability. Building from this expertise, we are in the process of developing a menu of effective strategies for addressing student homelessness.

Six in 10 students experiencing homelessness in the state of Washington are students of color. We also know that experiencing homelessness as a person of color can be especially traumatizing as our housing system was intentionally designed to and continues to exclude people of color. In addressing student homelessness, we believe working with the people most impacted by student homelessness to develop strategies will ensure our work positively affects all students experiencing homeless. To do this, we developed a project to help amplify the voices of students and families of color experiencing homelessness.

Last Winter, Building Changes began this project by interviewing students and families of color experiencing homelessness in King County to learn more about their daily challenges and successes—both in school and out of school. We also talked to a few school staff tasked to support students experiencing homelessness.

After analyzing the conversations, we identified several themes, including:

  • School and shelter staff do not fully understand the rights of students experiencing homelessness under the federal McKinney-Vento Act.
  • School and shelter staff do not always understand that a student’s behavior is related to the experiences of homelessness and other traumas.
  • Not all school staff are aware that living “doubled-up”—staying with others due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason—is considered homeless under McKinney-Vento, and that doubled-up situations can be just as disruptive to students’ academic outcomes as living on the street.

Students and families also told us:

  • They have experienced racism at schools and in shelters, such as when staff and students reinforce negative stereotypes and make assumptions about them and their backgrounds.
  • They would feel more supported if there were more people of color working at schools and shelters.
  • They would benefit if schools and shelters did a better job engaging with community organizations that primarily serve and are led by people of color.

We presented a detailed summary of the themes to a workgroup made up of parents and students who have experienced homelessness, school liaisons, and some health and housing officials who work directly with students and families experiencing homelessness. The brainstorming that ensued moved us closer to our goal—making sure that the insights and perspectives of students and families of color are reflected in tangible strategies that address student homelessness.

As part of our Schoolhouse Washington project, Building Changes is developing a menu of strategies that schools, school districts, and others can adopt to improve educational and housing outcomes for students experiencing homelessness. Our interviews with students and families of color experiencing homelessness are shaping this effort. The strategies we developed through this project play an important role in focusing our work on those most impacted by student homelessness. We strongly believe our work will only be successful if we are continuously talking to and learning from the those most impacted by student homelessness—students and families of color experiencing homelessness.

To further inform strategy development, we are conducting separate interviews across the state in schools and school districts, where students experiencing homelessness achieve better than predicted academic outcomes. These strategies also are informed by our School-Housing Network, a statewide peer-learning group we facilitate for schools and housing providers to share student homelessness strategies that are working well locally.

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