Promising Starts: School-Based Homelessness Prevention Services

Sometimes there is a simple concept to tackling a difficult problem. As CEO of Bill Wilson Center, a human service agency providing comprehensive housing, behavioral health services, and support for homeless youth and transition-age families in Silicon Valley, I was looking for creative ways to prevent family homelessness. Over the years, more and more of our homeless teens staying at our short-term residential program were coming from homeless families. It was difficult to reunite homeless teens with their families if the families were homeless. What could we do? Luckily a timely presentation on an Ohio school-based case management program for homeless families provided the spark for a new, promising program that we started last year.

As with many youth-serving agencies, our core competencies include working with children and youth on school campuses. For over 40 years we have been providing school-based mental health services to middle and high school students. We also provide referrals to needed community services and parenting and family counseling.  What if we took our skills in linking students up with needed services and focused on the parents and families at-risk of homelessness? 

During the 2011 – 12 school year, the McKinney-Vento homeless education liaisons for schools in Santa Clara County reported 2,535 homeless students. Working with the liaisons in three school districts we identified two high schools with a high poverty rate to test our intensive case management concept. We met with the principals and key school personnel to develop our program; it had to be simple, low-cost, and have measurable outcomes. We needed to be able to share information regarding school performance and behavior, at the same time respecting confidentiality. We wanted to show that we could not only prevent families from becoming homeless, but that we could improve school attendance and performance in students who were struggling due to family instability.

Bill Wilson Center’s Family Advocacy Services (FAS) program provides homeless prevention school-based services to youth, their families, and school staff. Services include Intensive Case Management for families and students. This coordinated strengths-based case management system connects families to community and public services to prevent episodes of homelessness. Connecting does not mean handing over a referral list but includes escorting families to services and often acting as advocates for the families. Additional services include a series of monthly workshops for parents with topics ranging from tenant rights to managing children’s behavior, and training workshops for school staff on how to identify issues related to homelessness in their students. The demographics in the two schools selected are overwhelmingly Latino, and many low-income families have parents who are mono-lingual, Spanish-speaking. Bilingual staff was a necessity. The program also had to be extremely hands-on for connecting families to services, so caseloads needed to start out small. We projected serving 25 – 30 families in each school, with a 0.5 FTE case manager per school. 

To fund the program, we applied for school-linked services from Santa Clara County General Funds which focused on serving youth on school campuses. We put a twist on serving youth by proposing our FAS program which addresses entire family units. One full-time case manager was hired to work half-time at each school site, and we hired a bilingual case manager who knew all the community resources, was tenacious, and could work in multiple settings. We also secured an unpaid intern. Additionally, we have access to limited financial assistance for each school to serve 25 – 30 families. Financial assistance can pay for utilities, rent, transportation, work clothes, and school supplies. Referrals come from McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Liaisons, teachers, school personnel, and self-referral from students seeking help for their parents.   

Preliminary outcomes for the FAS program are promising: students’ grades are going up. The pre- and post-tests available from one school reported grades increasing by half a grade in three months. The school reported only one of the 30 students as truant. Of the 30 families served, 11 are now receiving public benefits such as CalFresh and Medicaid. Nine parents are receiving assistance from community resources with food, rent, and gas for transportation to work. Eleven parents received employment assistance and gained employment, eleven were already in stable employment, and eight are either interviewing, job searching, and/or applying for disability benefits. Fifty-three percent of the families received financial assistance from Bill Wilson Center to prevent them from becoming homeless. 

School administrators and McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Liaisons report some of the benefits of the program include:

  • No longer having to reeducate referral sources when school personnel change
  • Families are provided with 2 – 3 months of intensive, daily case management followed by bi-weekly check-ins
  • Families and students develop trust with outside nonprofit case managers and they reach out for help.

Having community-based organizations providing intensive case management on school campuses to families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness is a great tool for ending family and youth homelessness. 

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