Maine’s Hidden Student Population: Supporting K-12 Student Homelessness


10003781_H16577309-600x382An outreach worker at the Shaw House, takes a photo of a sleeping bag at a spot frequented by homeless youth. Ashley L. Conti | BDN

This past September U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, called for reforms in federal anti-poverty programs by highlighting the story of a family who was living in the wood behind a Portland strip mall.

The number of K-12 students identified nationwide as being homeless during the most recent reporting years is staggering:

     2013-14                  2012-13               2011-12                                                              1,301,239               1,219,818             1,132,853

In Maine the statistics reported by the Maine Department of Education is equally stunning since 2011 alone, K-12 homelessness has doubled in Maine:

     2015          2014          2013          2012          2011 
     5062          5093         5241           3188          2496

While a portion of that increase can be attributed to better identification and tracking by schools, there is no doubt in my mind that we have more students that should be identified because sometimes students and families intentionally hide their circumstances, whether it is because they fear being separated or forced back into unsafe conditions.
At the K-12 public school level, there is a structure in place that schools follow to help homeless students remain in their school of origin. It is called the McKinney-Vento Act of 1987.

McKinney-Vento requires every Maine school district to have a homeless student liaison to help make sure homeless students are aware of their rights and while helping coordinate services. The federal law comes with funding to help districts meet their obligations, but as the homeless student population has grown, federal funding largely has not.

According to data from the recently released “Hidden in Plain Sight: Homeless Students in America’s Public Schools” report:

  • Students and the school liaisons and state coordinators that support them tell us that student homelessness remains an invisible and extremely disruptive problem
  • 78 percent were homeless a few times or more
  • 94 percent stayed with other people, rather than in one consistent place
  • 68 percent slept somewhere not typically designated for sleep because they had nowhere else to go
  • 50 percent slept in a car, park, abandoned building, bus station or other public place
  • 44 percent slept in a hotel/motel and 34 percent in an emergency shelter

I recently attended a Maine Department of Education homeless liaison training and I was struck by the level of support that school districts in Maine are providing. I heard how district homeless liaisons help students and families find shelters, coordinate transportation to and from school, fill out forms for public assistance, locate food pantries, and for older students, help them think about entering college. It was evident that McKinney Vento’s requirement to have district homeless liaisons is working to help remove barriers so that students can continue to access their educational program.

The Every Student Succeeds Act – made a handful of updates to the McKinney-Vento Act that should help bring a new focus to the plight of K-12 homelessness. These changes took effect October 1st and they too are a step in the right direction.

The law now requires High School counselors to help prepare and advise homeless youth about college and McKinney-Vento liaisons are obligated to inform homeless students about their status as independents when it comes to federal financial aid for college. In addition, schools will also have to start reporting on the academic outcomes and graduation rates for homeless students as a subgroup.

I’m sure some may consider these new requirements yet another educational unfunded mandate but I’d suggest we consider it the right thing to do so that every student does in fact have the chance to succeed.

Phillip Potenziano

About Phillip Potenziano

In addition to blogging, Dr. Potenziano works as an Assistant Superintendent, and volunteers on the board of a southern Maine local non-profit. He is happily nestled just north of Portland, with his 3 kids, a wife and lots of projects awaiting his attention. He loves early morning runs, donuts and sometimes coffee. Two lessons he tries to remember are: "Every man is my superior in that I may learn from him" and "At the moment of commitment, the entire universe conspires to assure your success."