“Every child and youth experiencing homelessness is successful in school, from early childhood through higher education.”—NAEHCY’s Vision
This fall, I had the privilege of attending the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth’s (NAEHCY—pronounced nācē) 31st Annual Conference in Washington, DC. NAEHCY is a national membership association dedicated to ensuring educational equity and excellence for children and youth experiencing homelessness. NAEHCY hosts the only national conference focused around homeless education from early childhood to college and brings together experts from across the country. NAEHCY believes that education is the pathway out of homelessness. This conference was aimed at connecting educators, advocates, researchers, community service providers, school district homeless liaisons, and state and federal administrators to resources and best-practice strategies for ensuring school enrollment, attendance, and overall success for children and youth experiencing or at risk of homelessness. There were 1,600 attendees with 48 states represented.
This conference was an eye-opening experience and a unique learning opportunity. I chose this conference for my professional development because the SAMHSA SOAR TA Center updated the SOAR curriculum to include a course on representing children with applying for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. Until late 2018, the SOAR curriculum was designed for case managers who were working with adults seeking disability benefits. The addition of the SOAR Online Course: Child Curriculum has resulted in a steep learning curve because disability benefits for children require knowledge of additional systems, such as education.
l attended a workshop called “When Two Laws Go Walking: McKinney-Vento and IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act].” Both are federal laws that require cross-systems knowledge of housing policy for students with disabilities (IDEA) experiencing homelessness (McKinney-Vento). These are critical laws that mandate how school districts must provide students access to services, housing, transportation, and health care. Because this takes community collaboration, many resources and best practices were shared. It was great to see those who were knowledgeable of special education learn how to become more involved with their local HUD Continuum of Care (CoC). I learned that McKinney-Vento suggests that school districts be a member of their CoC so that they can share data and resources on students experiencing homelessness within the CoC.
The sharing of resources and best-practices was central to the power of this conference. The vast majority of attendees were homeless liaisons representing school districts. They are tasked with getting their students and families the benefits they are eligible for, which can range from sneakers to mattresses. For example, I attended a workshop called “The Easy Button for Meaningful Community Engagement: Purposity,” which shared a non-profit, crowd-sourcing app designed to help homeless liaisons use their time more efficiently. I noticed many attendees downloading the app, eager to get on it with their school administrators and communities. A presenter from Beaufort, South Carolina stated, “Over 1,500 items requested for a family who lost everything in a house fire were purchased by the community in 16 minutes!” This freed up her time and she was able to attend to another student’s needs. I learned that many homeless liaisons cover several schools, often without other school personnel supports. They must be extremely knowledgeable of community-wide resources and contacts.
I learned so much about the important work school district homeless liaisons and others do across the country, serving our nation’s 1.3 million students experiencing homelessness. I learned a little bit about how to speak their language since jargon is so different across systems. I came away with great ideas for cross-systems communication and program collaboration with state and local school districts and other child-serving organizations.