Bright Idea: Dallas High Schools Open Early as Drop-In Centers
Once a week, a few dozen students at North Dallas High School arrive before the first bell. They receive a free breakfast, as well as supplies like socks and hygiene products, all of which have been donated by local businesses and a church across the street. Some of the young people take a donut or Egg McMuffin and go on their way, though others stick around to talk to volunteers like Mark Pierce, homeless liaison for the Dallas Independent School District, or representatives from local youth-serving agencies like Promise House.
Don’t call it a program for homeless youth: a variety of students show up, says Pierce, and the school doesn’t advertise it as homeless assistance. But this weekly drop-in center—and two others that Pierce has opened in other Dallas-area schools—has brought services, supplies and mentorship directly to some of the local kids who need it most, for whatever reason. The weekly event also has given youth- and family- serving programs a whole new way to interact with the city’s youth.
“It’s a win-win for both,” says Kerri Stitt, clinical services manager for Promise House. “The kids get resources, and we get to start relationships with them.”
Pierce and Stitt spoke to NCFY about how other communities can implement a similar program.
Step 1: Talk to your homeless liaison & local school
The McKinney-Vento Act requires that each school district employ a liaison for homeless youth. Pierce recommends calling them to talk about the possibility of weekly drop-ins at local schools. Or, he says, "Go directly to the high school and talk about opening something that doesn’t disrupt teaching time." Many schools have community outreach coordinators who can help bring this kind of idea to fruition.
Step 2: Bring in Local Partners
At the weekly Dallas drop-ins, case managers from youth-serving programs help young people fill out benefit forms and job applications. The case managers also generally inform young people of what services they’re entitled to. The biggest need that most youth convey is transportation, so Pierce has arranged for the Dallas Area Rapid Transport system to come by the school and hand out weekly passes so that youth might get around more easily.
Step 3: Give Youth a Reason to Come
Kerri Stitt says that those transportation passes, and other incentives, play a double role: they meet a need and they get young people in the door consistently.
“We also do a punch card system,” she says. “Every time [youth] come and talk to one of our case managers, they get a punch. After four times, we give them a $5 gift card [to a local business], then after eight it’s $20.”
Pierce says that he’s offered jobs to some of the more consistently engaged visitors to the program. They will get paid to help come in and set up for the drop-in center each week. Anything to improve these young people’s attendance in school, he says. “If they come [to our program], they will do better in school. They’ll have more of their needs meet, and they won’t have to wonder where to go for it.”