Supporting Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness during the COVID-19 Outbreak: Questions to Consider

March 16, 2020

As the nation comes together during this unprecedented national emergency, we need to support the most vulnerable in our communities. This includes the over 1.5 million students identified by our public schools as experiencing homelessness .

These children and youth, and their families, have unique needs particularly during school closures. It is necessary for schools and communities to work together to mitigate the loss of learning and prevent additional trauma. Local liaisons (and school points of contact for homeless education) should be consulted and deeply involved in COVID-19 response planning and execution. Below are questions for communities to consider on how to support children and youth experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 outbreak.

  • Can a school system identify which students are experiencing homelessness? 

Under Subtitle VII-B of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, homeless children and youths means individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence and includes children and youth who are sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason; are living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to the lack of alternative adequate accommodations; are living in emergency or transitional shelters; or are abandoned in hospitals; children and youth who have a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings; children and youth who are living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings; and migratory children who qualify as homeless because they are living in the previously described circumstances.

School districts are required to designate local homeless education liaisons (local liaisons), who have specific responsibilities for identifying children and youth experiencing homelessness. Local liaisons and other district or school staff who communicate with families and students should follow best practices in proactively, sensitively, and discretely asking about housing status in order to identify any and every student who has not already been identified as lacking a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.

  • Does a school system have methods in place to maintain communication with students experiencing homelessness? 

Students identified as experiencing homelessness should receive information and services from homeless liaisons as it relates to COVID-19, and liaisons should proactively maintain contact with these students and their families to ensure they are connected to school instruction and other school- and/or community-based supports, as needed and appropriate.

  • How can families and unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness access needed supports – such as food, hygiene, medical care, temporary shelter, and housing options for quarantine or recovery should they become ill - including in communities where schools have closed in response to COVID-19? 

Many communities are closing schools in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. While this is an important step to protect public health, it poses challenges for families and youth who depend on the supports their local school provides, including a safe place for students to be and learn during the day, and free school meals. Communities may opt to keeping certain schools or community sites open for food, hygiene, and health care, or provide drive-by options. This approach will allow families who have transportation to access this assistance; however, families and unaccompanied youth who do not have reliable transportation may miss out on these services.  Schools and community entities should consider strategies that will allow these families and youth to access the same supports, whether through the provision of transportation assistance, “home” delivery, or other appropriate options.

Processes for providing school meals and other services should be modified to ensure that unaccompanied youth are able to access meals and services, consistent with applicable McKinney-Vento Act requirements.

Schools should work with local public health officials and community partners to identify temporary, safe and stable shelter options for families or youth experiencing homelessness who must quarantine.

  • How can communities work with and support local liaisons, school counselors, school social workers, and other relevant district or school personnel in conducting outreach to students experiencing homelessness in order to check in on their safety and well-being? 

Typically, students experiencing homelessness stay in unsafe situations and are at greater risk, as compared to other students, of trafficking and other vulnerabilities. The closing of schools as a precautionary measure may have the unfortunate effect of having students experiencing homelessness spending more time in unsafe and even traumatic “home” environments, thus exacerbating trauma and a sense of isolation.

School staff, particularly those who already have established positive and supportive relationships with students, should regularly check-in with the students and their families. Schools and communities should work together to identify and execute a coordinated community strategy to maintain communication with families and unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness, such as through prepaid cellphones, e-mail, or other alternatives.

  • How can schools and communities work together to ensure access to virtual or distance learning opportunities for students experiencing homelessness when schools close? 

Students experiencing homelessness may lack access to the technology - including internet, a computer, and/or an appropriate mobile device - that would allow them to participate fully in online learning. In order to eliminate this barrier to full participation in school, schools and communities should work together to provide students experiencing homelessness with access to mobile hotspots, laptops/tablets, and any other materials necessary to fully participate in online learning. Schools and communities should work together to establish and implement a sensitive and discreet protocol for asking students and their families about their possible lack of supplies or other barriers to online learning.

Through working together, schools and communities can address the challenge presented by COVID-19 with innovation, creativity, and partnership. Through a coordinated response, schools and community organizations leverage the power of collective impact to protect the health and safety of children, youth, and families experiencing homelessness.