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How do you assign homework to a kid without a home?

By Mary Ellen Flannery



Tough economic times means increasing numbers of homeless children and students.

Photo by Charles Votaw

You can’t practice the violin in a homeless shelter. Not really, not if you don’t want to wake the babies—and you don’t want to wake the babies. That’s something 14-year-old Chauncey learned last year during the months she and her family spent at a family shelter in Northern Virginia.

Another thing you can’t always do: Sleep.

Chauncey’s big sister Chassity, a young poet, strictly prefers to sleep at night and dream during creative writing, but one morning last year, after weeks of shelter noises and nightmares, she could barely keep her head off the desk during 11th-grade English. Finally, her teacher took her aside to ask, “Is there something going on with you?”

In fact, there’s something going on with a lot of kids in America. In 2007, nearly 800,000 homeless children were enrolled in public schools—up 17 percent from the year before, according to the U.S. Department of Education. This year, as unemployment and foreclosures continue to rise, the rate of homelessness is expected to follow the same grim climb.

“There are homeless children everywhere,” says Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY).

Video: Homeless in South Dakota
A young mother finds hope in South Dakota’s public schools as she struggles to make a new home for her three young children.

These days, the average homeless person in America isn’t that whiskered alcoholic on the street, begging you for change while you sip your Starbucks venti. In small towns and cities across the country, the new face of homelessness is a single, often working mother with children like Chassity, Chauncey, and their young brothers, Chaddwick, and Chancellor.

Their mom, Juanell, was working paycheck to paycheck as an overnight stocker in a big-box store, when—at age 39—she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Classified part-time, even though she worked more than 40 hours a week, she didn’t have health insurance. (Hear that, Congress?) And then, after missing her shifts to undergo surgery, she didn’t have a job, either. With that, still recovering from the surgeon’s knife, she lost their home, too.

Her family’s story is a sad one, but it’s not unusual. Hundreds of thousands of American families have been pushed to the edge by the economic recession. Any one blow—a serious illness, a lost job, maybe an incident of domestic violence—can push them over the cliff.

Their children will still land in your schools. They’re there already, sitting in the back row with too-long hair and too-small shoes. But as their numbers grow, you should know how to identify homeless students, get them the services that they need and are entitled to, and also understand just how hard it is to build a bridge out of toothpicks when you live underneath one.

Homework in the shelter? Not so easy, either.


First, “open your eyes and ears,” urges Wendy Giebink, homeless liaison for 17 years in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where the number of homeless students that she serves has grown from 200 to 1,000-plus.

Homeless liaison Wendy Giebink keeps a stash of warm coats, donated by parents and community groups.

Photo by Charles Votaw

“Those kids who never eat lunch and say, ‘Oh, I’m just not hungry!’ Well, there may be another reason they’re not eating lunch,” and it’s because their mother’s purse is empty. Consider the kid who never makes it to school on time or the one wearing that same ketchup-stained shirt again. Where do you wash clothes when you live in your car?

School secretaries and registrars are first-line detectives. No fixed address? That’s an easy tip-off. But anybody might see the signs—the school bus driver who notices mom’s car whizzing to the neighborhood stop or the cafeteria worker who catches the same kid pocketing snack bars again.

Then, ask the hard questions. In Rutherford, Tennessee, where the number of homeless children increased from 95 in 2003 to 794 last year, middle school counselor Paige Swanson approaches her students like this: “I don’t want you to get mad at me, but I want you to hear me out. Is there something going on? Are you moving around a lot?“ She tells them, “This is an adult situation and you’re not an adult. I’m an adult and I can help you with it.”

Sometimes it’s just a matter of listening. Eight-year-old Chancellor had no shame in telling everybody he met where he was sleeping. “Is it true you’re living in a shelter?” his little friend asked Juanell at a school event last year.

“We have a rule in our house: We don’t lie,” Juanell recalls. “But I had to ask his teacher, ‘Will this be an issue? Because there might be parents who wouldn’t want their children near him anymore.’”

“Nobody wants to say they’re homeless. I have a big issue with pride. Believe me,” Juanell sighs. “But I look at my little people here and say, ‘Okay, if it means they’re going to get what they need....’”


Once identified, federal law entitles homeless students to specific services. Need a bus to detour by the homeless shelter? It may require complicated and costly re-routing, but the law says you should have it. Wondering what to do with the new guy who says he’s couch-surfing with pals, but doesn’t have a single piece of paper to prove he is who he says he is?

Answer: Enroll him, immediately. (With free lunch, too!)

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act provides for the seamless education of homeless students—and it broadly defines homeless to include families who are “doubling up” (as in, “We’re just staying with my auntie until my mom gets back on her feet.”) as well as families living in hotels, parks, bus and rail stations, abandoned buildings, and campgrounds and cars, not to mention emergency and transitional shelters.

Probably its most important provision guarantees students the right to attend their school of origin, even when temporary shelter lands them beyond the boundaries of their regular school. Costly? Sometimes. But the effects of switching schools cost more: Up to six months of learning per switch.

After working for the law’s passage in 1986 and reauthorization in 2002, advocates like NAEHCY’s Duffield are looking for key improvements this year. With NEA’s support, they’re calling for early education programs to prioritize homeless children for enrollment, and homeless liaisons to be provided adequate professional development.

But at the top of their list is money. The Act has never been fully funded, and NAEHCY is urging Congress to raise the authorized level of funding to $210 million from $70 million. Even with the best of intentions—and the law at their back—some school districts just can’t afford to bus their homeless kids.

For Juanell’s family, the school stability provisions were critical, as was the fast, supportive response of Fairfax County district staff. Here’s Chassity, a high school junior, applying for a free summer leadership program in Japan. What would be lost if she left the teachers who could write the most informed recommendations for her?

Or here’s Chaddwick, the 10-year-old with autism, whose sunny smiles very much rely on the regularity of his day. Snapping a handful of plastic hangers nervously against his thigh, he asks a visitor to his house, “Who are you? Is it time for you to go?”


The law also requires every school district to have a homeless liaison—although districts have responded with varying degrees of sincerity. (“Hey, could you just do this? On top of everything else you do?”)

They’re the ones hiring certified teachers to tutor at shelters; checking on test scores and grades; delivering bags of bread and apples to the local motels; and training school employees to recognize the signs of homelessness—“Do you know what rotten teeth smell like?” Giebink asks.

These days, as winter rolls across the Great Plains, Giebink is hunting for winter coats and warm shoes. “We do very basic things—help kids get underwear, toothpaste, laundry soap, and shoes. Some of our kids are coming to school in January in flip-flops,” Giebink says.

People need to know how bad homelessness is, Giebink continues. A second-grader in a motel isn’t on a vacation. That motel has a fist-sized hole in the wall where rats creep to steal the bread brought home from the food bank. “I’ve been in homes where kids are eating roadkill,” Giebink says bluntly.

The first priority has to be shelter, food, and clothes. In Rutherford County, the district works with numerous community partners to send food home with nearly 200 kids each week. Swanson keeps her desk drawer full of snacks and the school’s washer and dryer available.

Later, after they’re fed and warm, you can turn your attention to academic needs. Being homeless isn’t exactly a recipe for the honor roll, but it shouldn’t make it impossible. Teachers do need to be more thoughtful about their assignments, liaisons say.


Homework is an obvious hot spot. When Juanell and her kids were in the shelter, they were lucky. It offered daily homework hours with certified teachers in its common room and computer lab. With her tutor’s help, Chauncey put together a computerized slideshow of images from the 1990s. “I got an A-plus!” she says proudly.

But you can imagine that iMovie may be out of reach for a child living under a bridge, as are far less complicated assignments. When Giebink delivered groceries to one family in a local motel, she recounts, “this little boy’s face just lit up...and it was because the teacher had told him to bring an apple to school. They were going to graph seeds and do all these great activities, and this little boy was afraid he was going to be the only kid without an apple.”

Don’t assume they can go to the library after school. “They might have to go home and take care of their younger siblings. They might be at the emergency room because their mom was beaten up,” Giebink says. Plus, without an address, you often can’t get a library card.

“Do they really need to take their textbooks home?” Swanson asks. “Because they typically don’t have a place to keep them, and, if they lose a book, that’s $60 to $100 that they can’t pay.” Instead, provide them a place to do their work at school during homeroom or study hall.

Consider the same kind of accommodations that you might make for a child whose parent suddenly died. “Homelessness is like a death and they are grieving,” said Jody Tompros, director of transitional housing at Reston Interfaith, the nonprofit community agency helping Juanell’s family. “I really consider them children with special needs.”

AP Government homework? Still a challlenge, but a lot easier to get done in a new apartment subsidized by Reston Interfaith in Virginia.

Photo by Charles Votaw

Do encourage them. “I might have had a bad day just because I didn’t have a place to relax,” Chassity recalls. “You may not think you’re helping, but you may be making a difference to me.”

Structure is important, because their lives outside of school often lack it, Tompros points out. Giving them a classroom job can help them feel less invisible and more important to people around them. Assigning them a mentor or a class buddy also can help.

And do believe in them. In Howard County, Maryland, liaison Cathy Henry has the test results to prove that her homeless third-graders, provided support by tutors and homework clubs, actually do better in reading and math than other kids on free and reduced lunch. Last year, 77 percent of Howard’s homeless kids scored at or above proficient levels on state tests.

“We do believe it’s the extra TLC,” Henry says.

“Homeless children are like everybody else,” says Kim Snell, Swanson’s supervisor in Tennessee. “We have gifted homeless children, very talented homeless children. We have homeless children with great dreams and expectations for their lives, and they will achieve them. We don’t need to feel sorry for them. We just need to assist them in the ways that we can. We don’t need to have the same expectations for everybody, but have expectations based on the very best that each child can achieve.”

In Rutherford, Swanson points to the teenager who just asked her for a college recommendation. A few years ago, that child and her brother were sneaking into abandoned buildings with their meth-addicted parents, sleeping on filthy floors without even a blanket. “They’re now with a guardian and they’re excelling. They are straight-A algebra, honor-roll students.”

She thinks of another girl, who went from the biggest house in her Alabama town to homelessness after her father abandoned the family. Thanks to a guidance counselor who took unbelievable interest, that girl is now...Paige Swanson.

“I was homeless,” she says. “And that counselor was just somebody who, I don’t know, I guess she just backed up her words. Homeless children have been disappointed so many times they won’t take stock in anybody’s words. You’ve got to let them trust again.”

In Juanell’s family, things also are looking up. With assistance from Reston Interfaith, they’ve found a three-bedroom apartment that they can call home while Juanell takes pre-med classes and works at a local bakery. Meanwhile, Chauncey is headed for honor roll and practicing violin again.

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Homeless in South Dakota

Homeless in South Dakota
A young mother finds hope in South Dakota’s public schools as she struggles to make a new home for her three young children.