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Yearning for a home: The shocking prominence of student homelessness in Texas

Yearning for a home: The shocking prominence of student homelessness in Texas

Yearning for a home: The shocking prominence of student homelessness in Texas
July 07
11:00 2022

This story is part of “Yearning for a Home,” a project produced through the Dallas Media Collaborative, an effort by Dallas-area news organizations and other partners to examine solutions to public issues. This story’s team members include Coreyon Chester, Jordan Harmond, Kevin Keigher, Danielle Zachariah and Sophie Cortez. See the full project here. 

Shortly after turning 18, Annabelle Alberts was kicked out of her adopted family’s Wisconsin home in 2019. With no car, phone or bank account to her name, Alberts had the clothes on her back, a bag and nowhere to go. With the help of a co-worker, Alberts was able to maintain her job and a temporary living situation until her aunt and uncle, whom she had never met before, took her in and let her move in with them in Dallas.

While Alberts was lucky to have someone there to find her, not everyone has the chance to be found. Homelessness has been overlooked by the average person. The unfortunate part is that those who overlook others on the streets typically don’t think about the student population that struggles with homelessness.

Thousands of students in Dallas ISD and Denton ISD suffer from some form of homelessness. Whether that is couch surfing week-to-week or living with multiple family members while rooming with siblings or cousins – many students and families can’t afford permanent housing.

Recently, 740 students in Denton ISD were considered homeless, said Lynn Charles, the district’s coordinator of social work services, adding that it “could change tomorrow.”

Denton ISD works closely with United Way, which strives to better the lives of those affected by homelessness as well as overall mental health. Working together with local nonprofits and organizations helps create a community-wide belief of wanting to better the lives of students experiencing homelessness.

“Since January, there were 40 families that [United Way] were able to service to get them resources and to get them housing,” Charles said.

“Homelessness” is hard to define. School districts turn to the McKinney-Vento Act. According to the National Center for Homeless Education, the law states a student is homeless when they lack a regular place to sleep, live in shared housing or a motel, trailer park, campground, emergency shelter or hospital, or spend the night in cars, parks or streets.

“The McKinney-Vento Act is a federal act that allows students educational stability,” Charles said. “If a family is in transition, if they are living with another family member, or if they are not in their own fixed residence, they are considered ‘McKinney-Vento.’”

This federal act allows grade school students, K-12, to receive free lunches from their school each day, as well as being provided transportation and school supplies for each school year they register under the act.

“If a parent happens to move during that school year, the student can remain at that current school for educational stability,” Charles said.

While having educational stability is important, many families are too embarrassed to accept help from the McKinney-Vento Act and school districts. Other issues that arise include many high school students couch surfing and not living with their parents for personal reasons.

“We just take it case-by-case,” Charles said. “What works for one situation may not work for the other. The will monitor attendance because those students still have to attend school. Attendance laws still apply to them.”

Once students turn 18, it becomes difficult to maintain the help for those who need it. School districts can no longer provide those students any service once they are out of high school, whether they have graduated or not. Many students who don’t have a permanent living situation are more likely to fall into worse situations than they did when they were in school, through no fault of their own.

“In my experience, unfortunately, in two different states, is that sometimes, they’re on their own,” Charles said. “So how do we give those students the support [system] they need to become productive adults?”

After they turn 18, students are no longer eligible to receive help from schools, but they can receive support elsewhere.

The Fannie C. Harris Youth Center in Dallas is a residence offering kids of different ages a stable home and resources for success. Multiple programs bring in different age groups to access their needs such as an emergency youth shelter provided to the youth ages six to 18 every night, an LGBTQ group home and a transitional living program. According to the center’s website, The Transitional Living Program (TLP) “equips homeless youth ages 18 through 21 years old with the skills and education necessary to become independent, productive adults.”

“The general need was to address the homeless population in Dallas ISD,” program manager Tyrone Coleman said. “Our philosophy is the housing first model, where we get people off of the streets and then provide them with services.”

The TLP allows shelter for up to 18 months along with necessities such as food and clothing. The program, which provides educational assistance, also includes healthcare, recreational opportunities, case management for those who have legal trouble and help with locating and leasing apartments.

The Harris Youth Center is a two-story facility that provides areas such as a kitchen, a library room with bookshelves and computers to use, as well as a lounging area to watch TV. The second floor is the living quarters where dorm-like rooms are set up with one or two twin-sized beds in most rooms as well as a laundry area.

“We try to empower young people so they can incorporate kind of a new lease on life in a sense,” Coleman said. “A lot of the young men that come through our program feel like they have to do it by themselves, and for the most part, they have been doing it by themselves. But we try to surround them with a support system and resources.”

The goal is to help residents envision better outcomes. It allows those kids to gain back their lives and their futures by allowing them to better themselves.

“They push us to go find jobs and are hard on us,” Michael, a resident at the youth center, said. “They just want us to be productive and be successful so that way we can keep living here, have our own place either by ourselves, or reconnecting with family.”

While the youth center is a place for those young kids to regain control of their life, those coming into the youth center must be willing to adjust from their previous lifestyles to a strict schedule that forces those seeking help to focus on becoming better.

“It helps me because I have a curfew that I have to meet,” Noah, another student-resident of the youth center, said. “I just got to do my job, go to school, and come back. On top of that, I have court, and drug tests just to make sure I’m doing what I need to do to succeed in life.”

The youth center presents many challenges to those who have not had the chance to focus on their career and life goals, but once they meet them, new possibilities emerge. Those who decide to move into the center can’t come in looking for just a place to sleep for a night or two. They must be ready to change their life.

“A lot of people are stuck in their ways,” Buddy, a student resident, said. “They’re not willing to sacrifice what they have to sacrifice to get through a place like this. There are sacrifices that come with it. You’re not going to have the same freedom and dynamics as having your own place or living with somebody, but there are definitely perks to it.”

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Jordan Harmond

Jordan Harmond

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