While most of us have fond memories of our childhoods, we can probably all agree that being a kid also presents its fair share of challenges. For some of our student population, those challenges go far beyond the usual dynamics of school and friends; some of our students have to deal with problems concerning where they will sleep each night, how they will get a meal that evening, how and where they will get their homework done without internet, or, possibly, without even a roof over their heads.
“The stressors that homeless children and families have on their plate can certainly impact what the educational experience can look like,” said RSU 18 Special Services Social Worker Angela McMahon. “Having our educational staff tuned into youth homelessness and our educational responsibilities under federal legislation can help RSU 18 do the work of supporting homeless students the best that we can.”
Currently, 20 students in RSU 18 are facing homelessness, that we know of. While this is an average number for this point in the year, the district has seen an increase in homelessness over the past 7 years, with an average of 20-30 students who experience homelessness each year.
Angela McMahon is RSU 18’s McKinney-Vento Liaison in charge of working with our homeless population. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act has the goal of reducing the educational disruptions that homeless students may face due to a lack of stable or adequate housing. McMahon works to identify students who may be experiencing homelessness, and she stays on top of their enrollment and attendance to make sure they have every possible opportunity for academic success.
Each case of homelessness looks a little different. It can be the elementary student whose parent has fled domestic abuse and has been moving from one relative’s house to another, the middle schooler whose family is living in a weekly motel rental or facing going into the homeless shelter for assistance, or the teenager who has had to leave home due to a conflict with a parent or stepparent and is now couch surfing at friends’ houses and not always knowing where to sleep at night.
The obstacles these students have to overcome just to attend school can be truly overwhelming. Families may not have access to the documents they need to enroll students, or students may struggle to attend school on a regular basis due to frequent relocation and lack of transportation. McKinney-Vento has specific provisions that can help families by allowing for immediate enrollment for homeless students and providing help with transportation, but these issues are just the tip of the iceberg.
“There really is a variance in how an individual student will cope with the challenges of homelessness,” said McMahon, “but it is important to have an understanding of how this can manifest in a student. ”
Beyond difficulties with enrollment and attendance, students can experience homelessness as trauma, and it can have a profound impact on their sense of safety and wellbeing. Some students who are experiencing or have experienced homelessness struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or anxiety. They can seem hyper-vigilant, aggressive, or tired and withdrawn. They need all of the support that they can get to help them navigate these challenges.
McMahon works to provide that support by pulling together the right team to help each homeless student. The team can include administrators, teachers, counselors, and whoever else might be able to assist with that particular student’s needs. Together they work to eliminate the barriers in the way of the student’s academic success by addressing issues concerning attendance, transportation, housing and more. They help families find community assistance for housing, food, clothing, and other basic resources. They have also helped homeless youth obtain health insurance coverage.
McMahon also draws on the connections she has built with area homeless shelters and agencies like New Beginnings, Kennebec Behavioral Health, and the Shaw House who all have special programs for homeless youth. United Way of Mid Maine has a Youth Homeless Initiative that has helped area schools with funds to provide for individual needs. “This has been crucial assistance,” said McMahon.
It’s all too easy to convince ourselves that homelessness couldn’t be a problem for students in our community. Even once we realized the gravity of the situation, it can be daunting to know what steps to take.
“Awareness building is huge. Some community members don’t have an awareness of the challenges some students are facing,” said McMahon. “Educating one another can go a long way in creating a supportive environment for families and youth experiencing homelessness.”
There are so many ways for us to learn about the issue and lend a hand. The National Center for Homeless Education offers many national and local resources.
Many agencies that work to support homeless youth are in need of volunteers. Reach out to United Way of Mid Maine, the Mid Maine Homeless Shelter, or New Beginnings and see how you can make a difference in the lives of homeless youth in our community.