When a child does not know where he or she is going to sleep at night, studying for that math test loses its importance.
Having a roof over one’s head becomes more of a priority than acing the test.
With this thought in mind, a pilot program, Stable Homes Stable Schools launched in March 2019. “The basic premise is to provide a subsidy for families of elementary children that allows them to find stable housing that is close to their school,” said Jeff Horwich, policy communications director for Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA).
The pilot program has now transitioned to become a permanent part of the city budget. “The program came about from two observations which arose around the same time,” Horwich said. “One was the sobering statistic that one in 15 elementary students in Minneapolis had experienced homelessness. And that was the impulse in the community to try and find a solution.
“The other piece was research nationally about the importance of stable housing for young children, especially for their long-term educational and economic development. We recognize that if you can provide stable housing for young children, it can make a difference over a lifetime.”
The result was a partnership between the city, county, MPHA and Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS). “It was great from our perspective to be able to take our mission and our expertise in managing a subsidy program like this and combining it with funding from the city, which allows us to reach so many more families than we could on our own,” Horwich explained. The city funds 2/3 of the program and MPHA 1/3.
Stable Homes Stable Schools started on a small scale between MPHA and one particular school. “It grew when the mayor came to the table and said we might be able to take this program city-wide,” Horwich said. “The program ultimately expanded to 15 schools, and now is a part of 18 schools.”
Social workers identify children at the schools who are homeless. Once housing is located, the family pays a portion of its income for rent, and MPHA pays the balance.
According to Horwich, the rental assistance is combined with partners who help parents become engaged with their child’s education to a higher degree than they have been before. “They support them from all aspects of housing and education,” he said.
Rental assistance before homelessness
As the program came together, it became evident that some families needed help, but were not homeless. The Housing Stability Fund was developed, funded by the Pohlad Family Foundation with help from the Church of Latter Day Saints. This provides one-time financial assistance to help people at risk of homelessness.
“At last count, this fund had expended $323,000. And it has been renewed,” Horwich said. “There is also a $300,000 state grant, Homework Starts with Home, that has expanded to the three additional schools and provides additional staff support.
”We have continued to house families during the pandemic, even though kids have not physically been in school,” Horwich continued. “COVID-19 has made more stark the importance of stable housing when children need to attend from home.”
Horwich said the city has made a comparatively large amount of money available for rental assistance because of the pandemic. This includes one-time help with back rent or other housing expenses.
The COVID-19 rental assistance is available to families no matter what school their child attends. “Long-term rental assistance is limited to families whose children are enrolled in the 18 schools,” he said.
More needed than available
Horwich said it is impossible to talk about Stable Homes Stable Schools without acknowledging property owners. He said there is always a greater demand than supply for housing.
“Our partners at the YMCA are very important to this process,” he said, “working with families on housing search to find landlords. Many with Section 8 will tell you how difficult it is to find a place to use it. Depending on the school we need to keep kids close to and the size of the housing needed, it takes a lot of people coming to the table. There is a lag between enrolling families and finding housing.” Hennepin County also assists with this support.
“Our biggest challenge is connecting every family who needs a home with one that is available to them.”
Although the long-term results of Stable Homes Stable Schools may not be known for some time, the short-term results have been promising enough to make the pilot program permanent. The University of Minnesota is starting to research the effects.
According to Horwich, some measurements of the program have already been very encouraging. This includes attendance, getting to school, behavioral issues, and children starting and finishing the school year at the same school.
Charlotte Kinzley, Manager, Homeless/Highly Mobile Student Services at MPS, concurs.
“In our district overall, the average for school stability of students remaining in the same school all year is 86 %. The average for students in the Stable Homes Stable Schools program is 90%,” she said. “We also have seen statistically significant progress in school attendance.”
Kinzley said she started at MPS right as the program was launching. “It was a wonderful way to start my role, and one of the favorite parts of my job.”
Kinzley said MPS wants to eliminate barriers for those students experiencing homelessness and other issues, and finds there is a greater need than what is available.
“We prioritize around who is most in need, and I wish we could meet the needs of all,” she said. “But we are reaching a large number of students.”
She said that COVID-19 has affected the program in two ways. “We have had to shift our work in a way that makes it possible for families to connect with the program virtually. All of our students got devices through MPS and the Internet, and that removed some barriers.”
The program also has been affected by the low numbers of homeless that have been identified. “Family shelter numbers are historically low,” she added. “We think the Eviction Moratorium has affected the numbers, but there is also a lack of touchpoint with the schools. We are not seeing parents or students specifically in the school buildings. We can’t ask questions, and it makes it harder to make referrals.”
Kinzley added that MPS is working hard to get the message out. “We sent out a district-wide survey, and we are trying to make sure we are identifying those who are homeless.”
“We are all really worried about what happens when the Eviction Moratorium is lifted. A lot of really fabulous smart people are working on that, and hopefully we can prevent as much [homelessness] as we can.”
On the other hand, Kinzley said the school district is having families coming for support that would not have done so before the pandemic hit. She said MPS is referring these families to COVID-19 support services and other resources.