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Who is an unaccompanied homeless youth?
I’ve written previously about how, in education, we define homelessness under the McKinney-Vento Law. It is a definition that includes those living with others or in hotels due to economic hardship or emergency. One in every 30 people aged 13-17 has experienced homelessness while unaccompanied or “not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian.” This may seem like a small number of students, but for high school teachers, it could be almost one student in every class period. Studies show that these unaccompanied youths are in rural and urban places, from all different backgrounds. They are in your school.How to Help Unaccompanied Youth in Your School Click To Tweet
Why does this matter at school?
Signatures and permissions
Field trips, graduation requirements, and even the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) require the signature of a legally-responsible adult. The local Homeless Liaison in your district can help a student find a pathway to hurdle such barriers and gain full access to education, despite the difficult circumstance. For example, the district may give the student the right to sign for graduation requirements. Further, simply being identified by the district as an unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness is an important step in verifying a student as independent for the FAFSA. Need to locate your local liaison? Ask an administrator or find your state coordinator.
Economic and time pressures
Work, laundry, and cleaning are necessary skills for teens to practice, but they are essential for unaccompanied youth. Another difficult (and heartbreaking) part of unaccompanied life is meeting the expectations of the person housing the young person, which is called “doubled up” or “couch surfing.” Some people who allow a young person to live with them are generous and give a youth space to complete school work and extracurricular activities. But others demand cleaning, childcare, and more. Teachers should be flexible and modify the school day in helpful ways for a self-supporting youth, especially when it comes to homework. One simple change can make the difference in getting a student across the graduation stage. Further, connecting them to laundry at a school in the building, district, or community can be a huge help.
Unaccompanied students of any age may have trouble accessing health care until it becomes an emergency. This is especially true for older students who may never get an official custody arrangement or family placement. These young people will move forward in life independent of the care of a responsible adult. Many of the younger children will get a custody arrangement or foster placement that designates an adult to sign for care and manage insurance. However many teens are not as fortunate. McKinney-Vento mandates that a student experiencing homelessness must be immediately enrolled and kept in school even if they lack records or immunizations. Such care may seem basic but may not be attainable for some. Identifying these students can help them stay in school and get the assistance they need and stay in school.
How does your state compare in how it supports unaccompanied youth?
The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty released a comprehensive State Index of Youth Homelessness in 2019. It rates how well state systems support these youths in gaining access to education, health care, and legal independence. The report also scores states based on how well they provide prevention measures so that these youth do not become involved with criminal justice. California, Massachusetts, the District of Columbia, and New York are the only four states with a 70-percent or above score. See how your state could improve its supports for unaccompanied homeless youth and how you and your colleagues may advocate for helpful policy changes.
As educators, we know that one positive adult or one key support can change an outcome for youth for the better. By understanding our most vulnerable youth, we can meet them where they are to help them achieve their goals.
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