Q&A: Making McKinney-Vento More Accessible to Unaccompanied Homeless Youth

Two young people studying in a library.

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act addresses many of the barriers homeless students face. For example, the act requires school districts to help students get to school and makes exceptions for minor students who don’t have a parent or guardian to sign college registration or financial aid forms.

But a recent study found that many youth who experience homelessness away from their families miss out on services available through McKinney-Vento simply because they aren’t aware of their rights under the law. Children and youth in families may be more likely to get services because their parents tell their schools that they are homeless, lead author and school psychologist Ashley Ausikaitis told us in an interview.

We asked Ausikaitis what youth workers can do to make sure unaccompanied homeless youth know about and are able to get McKinney-Vento services.

NCFY: What do you recommend shelter service providers do to make unaccompanied homeless youth more aware of their rights under McKinney-Vento?

Ausikaitis: One suggestion would be to make it a part of materials distributed in street outreach efforts, including the vans that go around the city to reach youth and distribute supplies. Another is to have informational sessions during regularly scheduled program time at [transitional living programs] that let youth know that they have a right to education under the law and answer any questions they might have. Sometimes schools don’t provide that information. If shelter programs have school partners where youth attend, they could reach out to the school, recommending that they distribute information to the general student body so that students are aware that these rights exist, and that there is a compelling reason or benefit to disclosing their status as homeless to the school officials.

Shelter programs could use pre-existing relationships with certain schools where residents attend to get in touch with McKinney-Vento liaisons, and establish a relationship if one does not exist already. Liaisons can discreetly provide information about available programs to students, with an understanding that youth are not likely to disclose their status on their own.

NCFY: How do you envision liaisons distributing the information?

Ausikaitis: Our research team thought a lot about this topic. One way [liaisons can distribute information] is utilizing our website of school resources for homeless families. It contains a universal training tool for youth or families to have a discreet way to disclose their homeless status and receive support. The most immediate thing staff could do is provide this link to partner schools or schools in areas with high rates of youth homelessness to [help them] become better prepared to serve this population. Counselors could distribute an anonymous survey at the beginning of the year as students are enrolling, or other times throughout year. Or it doesn’t have to be anonymous - students can go through a checklist, and if they meet criteria for McKinney-Vento, the counselor can follow up with them privately.

Transitional living program staff or liaisons could give presentations to educators and other school staff, who are on the front line with students, to help them become more aware of certain warning signs. A lot of teachers don’t know about McKinney-Vento, and miss opportunities to help students stay in school. Schools can also display posters and distribute flyers in the counseling area and other populated areas around school. They should be specifically designed for teens with easy-to-understand language to encourage them to advocate for themselves.

NCFY: What can service providers and school staff do to encourage youth to advocate for themselves even though they may be reluctant to define themselves as homeless?

Ausikaitis: One way is through the social network of current residents, asking them to think of anyone they might know that’s vulnerable. [The transitional living program in the study,] Teen Living Programs [in Chicago] had current residents volunteer to be a part of a van that would go out on the evenings and weekends. It helped make it easier for youth on the streets feel comfortable [disclosing their status] because it wasn‘t just service providers telling you something; these are your peers explaining what they’ve gotten out of [McKinney-Vento and other services].

You can download screening tools, handbooks, pamphlets, posters, and other resources for liaisons, teachers, students, and parents at the School Resources for Homeless Families website.

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