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Supporting Students Facing Homelessness via Support Staff

The Department of Education’s homeless youth program: Part II of IV.

Key points

  • School counselors can be key in identification of students facing homelessness, especially at the high-school level.
  • Counselors can help homeless students complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and connect them to career and technical education.
  • Priorities of these programs serving homeless students include socio-emotional learning and wrap-around services.
Source: lechenie-narkomanii/Pixabay

The U.S. Department of Education's Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program and funds are available to educators and community members wishing to help vulnerable youth. In Part I of this interview, the U.S. Department of Education's and Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program’s John McLaughlin, Ed.D., and Heather Denny, M.Ed., were introduced, and McLaughlin shared details on the impact of COVID-19 on students experiencing homelessness, as well as what was being done to help with related problems like disengagement, inadequate access to technology, and achievement drops. Here McLaughlin and Denny share more insights into what can be done to support vulnerable students. McLaughlin's answers begin first.

What is the role of school psychologists, counselors, social workers, and special education teachers and staff in serving students experiencing homelessness?

That's a key focus for American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund and Homeless Children and Youth Fund. On the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief side, socio-emotional learning is singled out as a priority for the programming through that funding. Obviously, the pandemic meant students were losing family members and having family members who are sick, plus not being with their peers and their teachers, which had a big socio-emotional impact, so those American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds are addressing that.

In the American Rescue Plan Homeless Children and Youth world, we focus on wraparound services. It's written into the authorization for that funding that districts (and, to some extent, state departments of education) must use the funds to provide wrap-around services to students experiencing homelessness. The Department has added that districts should be especially focused on students experiencing homelessness among historically underserved populations. These groups have been identified in American Rescue Plan Homeless Children and Youth state plans as rural children and youth, Tribal children and youth, students of color, children and youth with disabilities, English learners, LGBTQ+ youth, and pregnant, parenting, or caregiving students experiencing homelessness.

Now, wraparound services is a concept I believe comes from behavioral health. It can mean many different things and we're going to put out a brief through our National Center for Homeless Education on it pretty soon. Those services are tailored to each individual student in a kind of case management model where different students may need different kinds of services. Some might only need counseling, some might need something more intensive such as psychiatric support; you know there's a whole range of behavioral and mental health professionals to bring together both within a school district and within a community through the school district.

And, of course, if you're homeless, you or your family probably need some housing navigation support. While that's traditionally not defined as a wraparound service, we think for homeless children and youth that districts and states on a regional level need navigators to help families and youth navigate the social service and behavioral health systems, housing system, and transportation, as well as early childhood and higher education systems. In our population, the early and older parts of the continuum we serve are the early childhood education population (age 0 to 6; they may not be in kindergarten yet), and then youth in the transition to postsecondary education (whether that's community college, a four-year university, or a career and technical education program), a significant number of whom are unaccompanied, or not in the custody of a parent or guardian. In the regular McKinney–Vento program. we've also historically supported the transition to K–12 and from K–12 for our children and youth experiencing homelessness.

What about technical assistance for student support personnel who are psychologists, social workers, and guidance counselors?

In the Every Student Succeeds Act, which reauthorized our program in late 2015 and which took effect in 2016, each state had to describe in a plan to the Department how they will provide training and professional development to relevant school personnel and also that all homeless youth in high schools, for example, would receive college and career-ready counseling. And if you're an unaccompanied homeless youth, you'd know about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and that you might be eligible for independent student status on that. We put out a lot of technical assistance: our “Resources” page has some products for state coordinators and local liaisons updated with Every Student Succeeds Act requirements, and our “Higher Education” page has college transition briefs. Beyond that, we did both a larger kind of research monograph and a shorter digest of the role of guidance counselors in supporting students experiencing homelessness. There are also resources on higher education and supporting unaccompanied homeless youth on the transition to higher education.

Heather, you are a school counselor by trade. What else can school counselors do to support students experiencing homelessness? [Denny's answers begin now.]

There are a lot of services that school counselors can provide that fit within high-quality school counseling programs under the American School Counselor Association model. I am a school counselor by training, so that's definitely a piece where I've tried to be really clear with school counselors around things like doing group work, friendship groups, bullying, and anger management—those allowable mental health services that school counselors can provide to students. School counselors can be really key in identification, especially at the high-school level as they're working with students who may come up and reveal their homeless status to a school counselor.

What else can school counselors do in regards to the students’ post–K–12 transition?

In that transition to higher ed, school counselors can help students completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Connecting students experiencing homelessness to career and technical education is a really critical role for school counselors. As school counselors are helping students move (particularly from middle school to high school), connecting them to career and technical education courses is a key dropout intervention.

Part II of IV. See Part III to keep reading.