Michele and her children found themselves homeless twice in two years. The housing losses in 2019 and this year devastated the nearly-lifelong Bethlehem resident and forced her to twice move her kids to different schools.
She hoped a law designed to ensure equal education for children and youth experiencing homelessness would protect her middle and high schoolers.
“I started getting information from friends about the McKinney-Vento Act,” said Michele, who’s currently living in Easton and spoke to lehighvalleylive.com on the condition we only use her first name to protect the identity of her children. “I read a lot about it and (learned) I should be allowed to keep my kids in the Bethlehem (Area) School District because they were kicked out of their homes in the middle of the school year.”
Due to limitations in identifying families who might be experiencing homelessness and without knowing what resources are available to help, families like Michele’s can find themselves moving from district to district based on where their current housing happens to be.
The goal of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which was signed into law in 1987, is to ensure children and youth experiencing homelessness have equal access to the same level of education and extracurricular activities as other children, explained Joe Willard, vice president for policy with People’s Emergency Center (PEC) in Philadelphia.
According to the law, homelessness is broadly defined and includes children and youth who don’t have fixed or adequate housing, and are sharing housing due to loss of housing or economic hardship.
A growing problem
During the 2017-2018 school year, the number of children and youth who experienced homelessness was 36,823, according to a report from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. That was a 22% increase from the previous school year. And there was no coronavirus pandemic crippling the economy.
As of Friday, Oct. 30, 155 students in BASD are protected under the McKinney-Vento Act, according to numbers provided by BASD Superintendent Joseph Roy and Audie Torres, BASD supervisor of child accounting and McKinney-Vento liaison.
According to a U.S. Census Bureau survey from August, 441,003 households with children did not pay the previous month’s rent or mortgage. Since that survey, the extended unemployment benefits have ended.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention implemented a nationwide eviction ban through the end of the year in response to the impact of the pandemic, but without financial assistance, many Pennsylvanian families may find themselves unable to pay their rent or mortgage.
According to a Census data analysis by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, between April 12 and July 21, roughly 20% of Pennsylvanians were behind on their rent every week. The center estimates that as many as 881,000 people are at risk of being homeless if the eviction ban is lifted.
Michele Albright, associate director for housing and emergency services with Valley Youth House, said because of the ban on evictions, there is virtually no housing stock.
“The rental market is depleted,” Albright said. “You have 20 individuals interested in the same unit.”
And rent for available units, Albright pointed out, is astronomical, making it nearly impossible for people to afford. Once the eviction ban is lifted, those who have been unable to pay their rent, will scramble to find affordable housing or end up homeless.
The pandemic has thrust students experiencing homelessness into an unfathomably difficult situation.
Homelessness not easily identified
The first step to seeking protection under McKinney-Vento is to identify a student who is eligible under the definition of homeless. But experts agree that isn’t always easy.
“A family might not want to (tell the school) they’re struggling,” said Michelle Connor, regional coordinator for Education for Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness. “People might come into a regional office (or school) wearing dirty clothes, their parents might be struggling, maybe they’re vague about their situation. In a perfect world, a regional coordinator would quietly contact a homeless liaison who would talk to the family about McKinney-Vento and how it’s supposed to work.”
In order to better identify families who might be eligible for protection under McKinney-Vento, universal screening tools are essential, Paige Joki, staff attorney for the Education Law Center, told lehighvalleylive.com.
“A universal screen takes the guesswork out of identifying students who might be experiencing homelessness,” Joki said. “Any time a student moves, he or she should be asked these questions.”
(While the Department of Education recommends universal screening tools, they are not required by the law, Joki said, making identification a real challenge.)
Some of the screening questions, which vary by state, include whether a living situation is temporary and if so, whether that’s due to an economic hardship; what that temporary housing is (a shelter, with another family, a hotel); if the student requires special education services; and whether the student exhibits behaviors that might disrupt his or her academic performance.
“Families do not need to identify themselves or use the language of the law in order to be protected,” Joki said. “The district can’t say, ‘You didn’t tell us so you don’t get any rights.’ It’s their obligation to identify children (who qualify for McKinney-Vento).”
Once a regional coordinator — Connor serves Region 8, which includes Northampton County — or homeless liaison identifies a qualifying family, they report it to the school district.
Every school district has a homeless liaison, Connor explained. (You can find your liaison here.)
“There is a legal obligation on the school system” to protect students who qualify for McKinney-Vento, Willard, of PEC, said.
A tricky situation
When Michele and her family lost their Bethlehem housing in March 2019 she emailed BASD superintendent Roy. In that email, dated March 18, 2019 and reviewed by lehighvalleylive.com, Michele explained her family lost their housing and would be moving to a town in the Northampton Area School District until they found permanent housing.
She wanted Roy to allow her then sixth-grade daughter and 10th-grade son to remain in the district until the end of the school year. She said she hadn’t gotten a clear answer on whether that was possible.
“I’m not asking for my kids to stay at the schools permanently but for them to finish out the last two months,” Michele wrote in the email to the superintendent. “I would transport them into school and pick them up every day.”
The district granted Michele’s request.
While Michele’s family was kicked out of their Bethlehem housing — an event that would qualify her children for protection under McKinney-Vento — signing a lease on their new house in NASD made them ineligible. Unbeknownst to Michele, a lease signifies housing is permanent, Roy told lehighvalleylive.com.
Speaking generally about the law, Joki says a lease or deed doesn’t automatically make a student ineligible for protection because “such a document doesn’t guarantee that the housing is adequate.” For example, the apartment could be substandard, infested, or lack an essential part like a kitchen or bathroom.
Michele enrolled her kids in NASD that fall, a move that made the district their “school of origin.” So this July, when Michele and her family lost their housing again and were forced to move to Easton to stay with relatives, she could either enroll her son, now a rising senior, and daughter, a rising eighth-grader who requires special education services, in Easton Area School District, or keep them in NASD.
According to emails reviewed by lehighvalleylive.com, Michele corresponded with a half dozen people from BASD and other agencies in an effort to get them back into BASD schools. The responses she got, per the emails, indicated that they didn’t qualify to go back because their most recent event of homelessness occurred while they were in NASD, not BASD.
“If it had happened in BASD, the family would have a choice between BASD and NASD,” Connor said, with regard to Michele’s case, for which she was the coordinator. “But you can’t have three schools of origin.”
Other provisions of McKinney-Vento also aim to strike a balance between ensuring the law’s not abused and protecting the children and youth who benefit from it.
At the end of every school year, a district will check in with families protected by McKinney-Vento. If the housing situation still qualifies a student as experiencing homelessness, that student can stay in the district.
“There is no duration for how long a student can experience homelessness,” Joki said, referring to a 2019 case. “Many families might experience recurring homelessness or it might last for a significant amount of time. The district can’t decide that a student has experienced homelessness long enough.”
This doesn’t mean, however, that a family that lives in Allentown, for example, can send their kids to live with a relative in Parkland so they can attend school in that district, Connor explained.
“The causal event (that forces a family out of their housing) must not be a choice,” she said. “It has to be something that makes the home uninhabitable, like a job loss. Anybody can stay with a grandmother or family member, but that doesn’t make you eligible for McKinney-Vento.”
Virtual learning and homelessness
The coronavirus pandemic creates a unique challenge for children and youth experiencing homelessness: virtual learning.
At Valley Youth House, Albright and her team had to change its staffing pattern because students are not at school during the day. They also hired an education specialist, bought additional computers, and expanded the shelter’s WiFi capabilities.
Joki worries that students who are living doubled up (sharing living arrangements due to lack of housing) or in shelters might not have a quiet place to work, or their parents might be essential workers who cannot help them throughout the day.
“It’s not just about the ability to log in, but does someone have the right materials? Access to food?” Joki said.
Willard, of PEC, pointed out that protecting students under McKinney-Vento is harder when they’re not going into school.
“If they’re not going into school physically, counselors and teachers are not aware that they’re homeless,” Willard said. “The schools don’t have a means to reach out and support them.”
Mark DiRocco, the executive director for the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, agreed.
“You can probably call half a dozen districts and they’ll tell you it’s more difficult to keep track of a family right now, especially in high-poverty school districts,” DiRocco said, noting that some students may not even have a mailing address.
“It’s been a real challenge with COVID,” he said, pointing out that districts want to help students experiencing hardships. “Most people who work in school districts are there for one reason: to help children.”
Joseph Kovalchik, the superintendent for NASD, said attendance checks are usually how his district finds families experiencing homelessness.
“Many people do not inform us of their status,” Kovalchik wrote in an email to lehighvalleylive.com. “Discovering the reasons why students have many absences is challenging in a normal year. COVID has caused unique challenges.”
NASD, however, has a district police department, which has the ability to check on families whom the school has identified as experiencing homelessness.
“We truly try to assist those families that are homeless,” he said. “It is imperative to provide every child with an opportunity to have access to an education.”
A family’s triumphant story
Michele pleaded her unique case to anyone who would listen. She made dozens of phone calls. She emailed nearly 40 people — including school officials, elected officials, her children’s teachers, journalists, and nonprofit organizations. Most emails, she said, went unanswered.
Ultimately Michele, BASD and NASD came to an unprecedented agreement to allow her children to stay in the school district they had grown up with, the one Michele said had molded them into talented and hardworking individuals.
“The kids had been in Bethlehem and had a variety of different family challenges and (Michele) was trying to do what’s best for her children,” Roy told lehighvalleylive.com. “They were involved in BASD schools and activities. I wanted to see what we could do to get them back in the school district.”
Michele, a newly single mother, works in Bethlehem and is trying desperately to find housing within the city limits. While her son will graduate in June of next year, her daughter is still in middle school.
“You have to fight for what’s right for your children,” Michele said, emphasizing the fact that she didn’t have anything against NASD or EASD — she just didn’t want to keep moving her kids due to circumstances out of their control. “Your children are the most important things in the world and they deserve the education that they need.”
In August, Michele’s kids went back to the schools they knew with the friends they love.
“It was definitely worth the fight.”
After all, BASD is their home.
The following are links to additional resources:
Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to lehighvalleylive.com.