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Teen homelessness can be hard to spot; schools on the front line

Posted on 24 January 2017 by calvin

Photo and article by MARGIE O’LOUGHLIN
South High Homeless Kids 06Sheri Harris (photo right) has been a social worker at South High School for 22 years. She works with students in 11th and 12th grades and said, “I see the stress level of our students rising. Sometimes its academic stress, or the stress of expectations, but for students struggling with homelessness it’s definitely the stress of unmet basic needs.”

Harris estimated that “over the course of a school year, our staff will recognize 50-60 students as homeless, highly mobile, or precariously housed. There are easily 20-30 more that we don’t know about. Sometimes it can be hard to tell.”

That’s because the students themselves may not realize they have a housing disruption. If the situation is chronic, it just becomes their version of normal. There’s also no one definition of homelessness. It can mean families live in shelters together or youth live in shelters alone. It can mean youth sleep on buses or trains, in metro stations or cars, or couch surf with friends or relatives. The first red flag is usually poor attendance at school.

“Everyone in our building has to work together,” Harris explained. “Teachers are on the front line, as they have the most regular contact with students. If a teacher notices a student appears tired a lot, is unkempt, has a fuller backpack than usual, or is very protective of their belongings—he or she will reach out to that student.”

“If the student is struggling with homelessness or related issues,” Harris said, “the teacher will ask to make a referral to a social worker. Here at South, our four-person social work staff is in the business of ‘resource brokering.’ We find ways for students to get their basic needs met so that they can come to school classroom ready.”

There are several programs in place at South to help all students succeed; these programs especially help to level the playing field for homeless and highly mobile students.

The School Based Clinic provides everything from sports physicals to reproductive health exams, to mental health counseling.

South is one of four schools in Minneapolis that offers fully licensed, on-site childcare and parenting classes for teen parents.

The Kopp Family Foundation has donated generously to South High School for years through their Random Acts of Kindness Program, making it possible for students who couldn’t otherwise attend field trips and special programs, go to prom, buy a yearbook or school supplies.

Similarly, Minneapolis Public Schools provides assistance through their School Success Fund for Students on the Move.

Students experiencing housing insecurity (as well as those receiving free and reduced lunch) are eligible for free MTC transit passes to make getting to school easier.

A valuable on-line resource for students experiencing homelessness is something called the Youth Services Network, which can be accessed at The website lists very current information about daytime and overnight shelters, drop-in centers, outreach workers, food, medical care, crisis counseling, or help with parenting. In the recent deep-freeze, a banner across the top of the website issued a cold weather warning and a list of emergency daytime shelters.

The Minneapolis Public Schools are guided by the Mc­Kinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. This federal law provides homeless and highly mobile students with certain rights, so they will be able to meet the same standards expected of all students in the district. One of those rights is to attend the same school consistently, even if housing in the district ceases to exist.

Ryan Strack is the Minneapolis Public School’s District Liaison for Homeless and Highly Mobile Youth, and it’s his job to make sure the provisions of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act are met. Describing his job, he said, “A third of my time is spent cultivating relationships with outside agencies like shelters, another third is spent strengthening connections with school staff district-wide, and the rest of my time is spent with the logistics of getting homeless and highly mobile youth enrolled in schools.”

Strack continued, saying, “Our youth on the move are pretty industrious. For the 2015-2016 school year, we recorded 961 9th-12th graders as homeless or highly mobile throughout the district. Some have left home on their own accord because of perceived safety issues. We think that 25-40% of the overall number are LGBTQ, and may be homeless because their parents have kicked them out.”

“We need more affordable housing options and shelter spaces for homeless and highly mobile youth, and better jobs,” Strack concluded. “The most challenging part of working with these kids is that so many factors are beyond our control.”