School has been a lifeline for homeless youth. Now what?

Providers say district going online is ‘keeping many of us up at night’

(Photo: Pexels)

For youth experiencing homelessness, Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth executive director Arash Ghafoori described the classroom as a last refuge. 

Schools can provide a safety net where they can access social service resources needed for survival. In the long run, education and earning a high school diploma becomes a tool that can help youth exit homelessness.

“Whether a youth is experiencing homelessness alone or if a youth is part of a family unit that is experiencing homelessness, school is a valuable tool and resource,” he said. “Not only can youths go to school to get educated but (school) also provides parents time to go to work. (Students) have access to free and reduced lunch and community partners that are within the school. But now, all of these things are threatened or not there in a very easy way for people to access.”

Service providers including Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth and HELP of Southern Nevada are worried what an online school year could mean for youth experiencing homelessness.

Kelly-Jo Shebeck, coordinator for Clark County School District’s Title 1 Homeless Outreach Program for Education, said schools are still figuring out how to connect youth to resources when distance learning means there are less interactions between students and teachers.

“We are still learning how to communicate in the community with families and youth who don’t have that ongoing access (to resources),” she said. “We are trying to expand our reach to be more collaborative with community partners so we have additional eyes and ears out there.”

United States Interagency Council on Homelessness data from 2019 estimates 20,686 students in Nevada are experiencing homelessness. The number includes those who lack stable housing and reside in either weekly motels or are double up on housing with other families. 

The McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 mandates once homeless students are identified, school districts enroll them even if they lack appropriate documentation, such as a birth certificate or immunization records.

Before the pandemic, Ghafoori said properly identifying homelessness or housing unstable youth and connecting them to resources was already a difficult task. 

“A youth may be identified but that doesn’t mean they will be connected to the resources they need,” Ghafoori said. “Youth often fall through the cracks.”

But without in-person interactions in the classroom, there are concerns about how to recognize housing issues among students.

“This is something keeping many of us up at night because it is going to be a huge challenge,” he said. “In a pre-Covid world, it was already hard enough to work on the identification piece, which is so essential. Even when you had outreach in full force and schools were open, it was a huge challenge considering the nature of homelessness. Now it is a scary proposition. Schools are going entirely virtual. There are not many opportunities to have those collision points with youth where teachers and educators can observe behaviors or incidents that occur and do something about it. Now there is no way of knowing where these youth are and how to identify them and how to get services to them.”

Identification, Ghafoori continued, is even more important now because it prevents more families from entering homelessness. 

“If we do not start working on prevention, this is going to be unfathomable as far as the demand versus the services available,” he added. “We are already seeing huge demands.”

Shebeck said the school district is sending out more training videos and resources to teachers and administrators about available programs and resources for students. 

“Every school is also putting together their plan and putting together their ‘touch points’ for how they’re going to reach out to students,” she added. “Rather than a family coming into a school to see the posters and the pamphlets that are normally available, we have put out a Title 1 resource email for parents that schools can send out.”

She added some schools, in particular those with high populations of transient students, are going into their neighborhoods to talk directly to parents. 

Ghafoori still worries virtual classrooms will be a barrier preventing students from telling teachers if they lack resources like housing or food. 

“I’m talking with youth, and they are saying don’t assume they are going to tell (teachers) that they are hungry, or suffering abuse or have no place to do homework,” he said. “Don’t assume they are going to say they only have access to the internet for 10 minutes but have no place to sit to do homework.”

‘It’s not just about having the internet’

During discussions around transitioning to online school, the Clark County School District estimated 40 percent of student households might lack internet access and/or devices.

The district has been working to secure enough equipment for all students including those who might be in shelters. 

“This is the first year we’ll be able to provide Chromebooks and hotspots for the shelters,” Shebeck said. “We’ve also provided training for our shelter contacts. They will have a check in and out system for our youths who are in those agencies. That’s one thing we haven’t done before.”

But figuring out who exactly needs devices is tricky, especially if households and youth are homeless. 

“Everyone is talking about the internet and technology devices,” Ghafoori said. “That’s going to be important, but we’re dealing with a nasty catch-22. We’re saying everyone needs the internet and we’re trying to get more internet out to people, but then the way we are currently communicating to people about means and opportunities that exist or could help them is through the internet.”

Securing Chromebooks and providing more internet access is just part of the problem.

“Just like you can’t have a classroom next to a concert hall, if there are distracting elements going on it is impossible to learn,” Ghafoori said.

If households start facing evictions, he added “it’s going to create a huge stress on the environment.”

“It’s not just about having the internet, it’s the environment,” he said.

Evictions at the start of the school year

Many service providers see a perfect storm brewing as school starts around the same time the eviction moratorium lifts Sept. 1 for the nonpayment of rent.

“So 250,000 people could be facing eviction and a large percentage of them have children,” said Abby Quinn, the Chief Community Relations Officer with HELP of Southern Nevada. “Right now, shelters are at a smaller capacity because of Covid. That’s scary for our community. We have to be thinking about where we’re going to house people if they are getting evicted from their homes.”

“When the family unit breaks up, that really puts a stresser on the amount of youth experiencing homelessness in our community,” Ghafoori added. “If you’re thinking about survival day to day, you’re not thinking about your education or your future.”

While there has been county and state-based rental assistance funds allocated, officials have said over and over again the demand and need is far greater than what’s available. 

HELP of Southern Nevada alone has a 3,600-person list for rental assistance they are working through, Quinn said.  

“I have people email me and say never in a million years would they think they would need assistance,” she added. “They made good money and never needed any sort of assistance and now they need $4,000 or $5,000 just so they don’t get evicted. So many people are facing homelessness.”

Both Quinn and Ghafoori noted unforeseen consequences hitting households with older school children.

Quinn said it’s likely older children who might “have to stay home and teach their younger siblings, so maybe they’re not able to concentrate and focus on school the most they can.”

Since the start of Covid, nonprofits and social services providers along with policymakers have agreed the most pressing problems aren’t new but are rather exacerbated, if not illuminated, by the health crisis. 

Ghafoori said the community is starting to discuss the connection between education and larger issues like housing.

“We cannot ignore housing instability, lack of living wages and other policy measures and other employment interventions that policy makers can take,” he said. “When we’re thinking about funding and investment, it needs to be for interventions happening in the school but just as importantly, if not more importantly, we need to invest in the things that happen outside of school. Those things need to happen in tandem. If one happens without the other, it’s not a complete solution.” 

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.