Graduating while homeless: Nevada rethinks outdated policies

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Sarah Robbins moved 25 times while she was a student in the Nye County School District. She was young when she came to the understanding she would always be homeless or, at the very least, always at-risk of becoming homeless, while in school.

“I would be living in cars without heat in the dead of winter, sleeping on the floors of strangers or temporarily residing in a home of my own for a few weeks before mother got evicted,” she said.

Robbins, now a 21-year-old college student, put her focus on education and excelled in honors and advanced placement courses during high school because she thought it was the “only opportunity to break the cycle of poverty and homelessness.”

However, another obstacle manifested the fall semester of senior year when her home life turned volatile and she became homeless yet again. The closest homeless shelter was an hour away in Las Vegas, which didn’t seem like an option for her. Moving schools would put her a year behind since some of her class credits wouldn’t transfer to another school.

“I felt everything I’d done in school had meant nothing,” she said. “I felt like my education would be taken from me if I moved.”

Robbins shared her story with Nevada lawmakers earlier in February and pleaded with them to take steps to fix barriers homeless youth like her face. Legislators are considering Senate Bill 147, which helps homeless and foster youth get partial or full credit for coursework regardless of attendance to aid them on the path toward graduation, and Assembly Bill 133, which expands the definition of runaway and homeless youth as well as a county’s role in providing support.

These bills don’t address the root causes of their homelessness, nor does it allocate specific funding to shelter homeless youth or provide additional wrap-around services.

While many advocates say taking action to decrease gaps in education can do much to help homeless youth graduate from high school —  other states have taken similar steps through legislation — some states with similar rates of homeless youth have also proposed funding specifically to invest in resources and solutions. In 2018, a California legislator requested $60 million annually to tackle their homeless youth problem.

Although the Nevada legislation includes no additional funding, homeless youth like Robbins believe the current legislation being proposed is still a needed step that could still “change the trajectory of student’s lives.”

“…no fault of their own”

The number of students experiencing homeless in the U.S. has nearly doubled since 2006, according to a 2018 report from Education Leads Home, a national campaign to close education gaps of students.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, Nevada has the highest rate of homeless youth who are unsheltered, at 84 percent.

The National Center for Homeless Education estimates about 16,800 students in Nevada public schools identified as homeless in 2018 — a number confirmed from various testimony to Nevada lawmakers recently. As Senate Education Committee Chair Mo Denis put it, homeless youth, along with an estimated 3,000 foster youth combined, could make up the “fourth largest school district in Nevada.”

The earlier homeless youth are helped, the better their chance of escaping the cycle of homelessness and becoming homeless adults. “Students experiencing homelessness are 87 percent more likely not to earn a high school diploma due in part to a school’s lack of acceptance of unfinished or partial credits,” Robbins said. “Homeless students without a high school diploma are four times more likely to become chronically homeless as adult.”

Youth have to make strides toward diplomas despite insurmountable odds and barriers to the education process. In the words of Arash Ghafoori, the executive director of the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth who spoke in front of the Assembly Committee on Education, next week’s math test means nothing to a homeless student when they don’t know where they are sleeping that night.

“Homeless youth are highly intelligent,” said Assemblyman Tyrone Thompson, who spoke on behalf of SB147 Feb. 20 at the Senate Committee on Education. “They just don’t have the stability they need.”

Unstable living conditions often results in chronic absences. The bill would ensure homeless and foster youth would have enough credits to graduate high school by allowing them to be awarded full or partial credit for work regardless of attendance records.

Assemblywoman Brittney Miller said the bill would also require schools to “develop procedures to assess a student’s competency through testing or other procedures, rather than actual time physically sitting in a chair at school.”

“The spirit of this bill is that (they are homeless) by no fault of their own,” Miller said.

There are already federal mandates for how school districts help homeless youth. The McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 ensures that once homeless students are identified, school districts enroll them even if they lack appropriate documentation, such as a birth certificate or immunization records.

“If a person lost their housing, were locked out of their homes or fleeing a natural disaster, they might not have proof of residency or birth certificates,” said Kelly-Jo Shebeck of the Clark County School District’s Title 1 Homeless Outreach Program for Education.

Unlike the U.S. Housing and Urban Development definition of homelessness, which defines it as living in uninhabitable places, in emergency shelters or transitional housing, McKinney–Vento categorizes it as any student who has an irregular or inadequate nighttime residence. That applies to families who have lost housing and are forced to double up with friends or relatives, those living in extended-stay motels, as well as people on the streets or in their cars.

While the district doesn’t track data on the reasons that led to homelessness, Shebeck said it can be anything from the lack of affordable housing and evictions to those fleeing natural disasters like the California fires. Other advocates testifying mentioned domestic violence in the home or being kicked out for identifying as LGBTQ as reasons that led to homelessness.

The Title 1 HOPE office connects homeless youth to some wrap-around services and nonprofits to respond to needs of specific students. When Robbins came to her school’s program liaison, they were able to provide support and find her a place to live, which helped her stay in school and complete her coursework on time.

While the McKinney–Vento Act ensures students remain in their original school zones even if they’ve moved across town, Shebeck says that’s not always a feasible option. “If (a homeless youth) is living at a shelter and they have to take a bus with three transfers to get to school, that might not be in their best interest,” she added.

The proposed bill also makes sure the credits students acquired at one school would be transferable.

Missed opportunities for federal money 

Homeless youth have a small window of time to turn their lives around. “The data shows if you can intervene in the life of a homeless youth before the age of 25, 85 percent go on to be productive community members,” said Michele Gehr, the executive director of the Reno-based nonprofit Eddy House. “Nevada has had the fastest growing populations of homeless youth in the country. Because our current laws do not match the current federal definition of homeless youth, much of the available grant money has not come here and we’ve missed opportunities to tackle this problem aggressively.”

Assembly Bill 133, sponsored by Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson, updates Nevada’s language by increasing the age a person can be considered homeless or a runaway youth from 18 to 24.

The legislation, which was heard Feb. 25, would allow Nevada to compete for more federal dollars to specifically focus on the needs of homeless youth.

Nevada receives federal funding from HUD based on its annual homeless count — under the McKinney–Vento Act, Nevada school districts also get funding for homeless youth services and were allocated about $560,000 in 2018.

Gehr said most federal dollars target homeless adults.

“Homeless youth are homeless for different reasons than adults and need different services,” Gehr said. “Right now, homeless youth don’t access adult services. They are system resistant and don’t want anything to do with something that looks like an institution.”

Without adequate resources and funding, she added, homeless youth turn into homeless adults. “We have a homeless youth problem in our state, that’s true,” Gehr said. “We also have the ability to solve it by defining the population and pursuing opportunities for funding that will lift our kids from the streets and into our communities as productive community members.”

While Nevada law also requires counties to provide assistance for the indigent, the proposed bill expands the definition to specifically add runaway or homeless youth who lack other means of support.

“We do not believe this creates a new duty for the county,” Gehr said. “It emphasizes an existing one. Homeless youth, by their nature, fall into existing indigent statutes.”

The Carson City Health and Human Services Department, which was neutral on the bill, worried it “would not be able to provide services outlined in the bill” without any additional funding allocated.

Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.

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