Last year in Franklin County a growing number of children were at some point without a permanent address. Some were living with other families, or with their own extended relatives. Some had their parents with them. A small number were on their own.
While they studied and participated in extracurriculars, a network of professionals in the area — teachers, social workers and school officials — was seeking out resources for everything they might need.
They’re called homeless liaisons, and by law, every school district must have one designated.
“The purpose behind the law and behind these positions in school districts is to make sure these students have a voice and have options,” said Stephanie Bechard, a 20-year educator who serves as the homeless liaison for the Meramec Valley R-III District in Pacific. She’s also the early childhood principal.
Cheryl Savage, who after a two-decade career as a social worker and school counselor in Union R-XIII started as the district’s liaison in fall 2020, agreed.
“Having one person that’s the designated point person has expedited services,” she said.
Bechard and Savage are two of nearly a dozen area liaisons around Franklin County and neighboring counties who serve as the main point of contact between students and their families and the area’s nonprofit sector. Their day-to-day involves problem-solving any potential barriers children without a permanent address face, such as getting a ride to a sports practice, having a calculator for math class, having access to an instrument for band and even affording a graduation robe. They use resources including parents and teachers who are willing to help.
The liaisons also help fill out Medicaid forms when needed or even find temporary housing for entire families.
In several cases, the services center on keeping the student in their school when their family moves to another district. For example, if a student is doing well at Pacific and their family moves to Union in the middle of the year because they’ve been evicted, and they don’t have a car, the school district would work with Union R-XI School District to charter a bus or taxi so the student can stay at their school, or if they have a car, the parents might receive gas cards, explained Rachel George, an educational support counselor who works with Bechard at Meramec Valley R-III. She also remembered a mom whose daughter in Pacific played sports with a child whose family was staying in New Haven and didn’t have a car. After every practice, she would drive her daughter’s friend the 30 miles back to her home.
“We know that when children bounce from school to school, they get different experiences and end up with lots of gaps,” Bechard said. “So the real purpose behind the positions is to help track some of these kiddos and keep them in their schools. It’s being able to revisit what is best for those kids and making sure someone is looking out for them. So liaisons are responsible for pretty much anything that comes up.”
Even though she’s responsible for a small school district, New Haven special education director and liaison Julie Conner said she’s never had a school district not want to work together, and vice versa.
“I think that is a real strength, how willing everybody is to try to keep the kids in the same school,” she said. “I’m always impressed with how easy it is to get it worked out because everybody wants what’s best for the kids.”
A Catch-All Definition
In 1987, the U.S. passed the McKinney-Vento Act, which among other things allocated federal money for homeless shelter programs. The law defined homeless children as any children living without a fixed, regular residence, including children who are “couch-surfing,” sharing a house with another family, living in motels, hotels or trailer parks, living temporarily with extended family or living in transitional shelters.
“It’s a broad definition, but overall it alerts us to students who might need help,” said Eric Grainger, the St. Clair liaison. He’s been in the district five years and previously worked for a psychiatric hospital, for a juvenile office and in adolescent substance abuse counseling, all in Franklin County.
Using this definition, Grainger offered outreach to around 131 students last school year in the St. Clair district. Savage has so far this school year reached out to 76 families in Union. Pacific’s number last year was 257, and Washington’s in 2018-2019 was 65.
“The numbers look high, but you have to remember what the definition is,” Grainger said. “That’s not saying that every kid on the homeless list is couch-surfing. That is important for people to understand.”
Data from the National Center for Homeless Education for fall 2015 through spring 2018, the most recent year available, showed that nationwide the number of students falling into the McKinney-Vento definition of homeless rose by 15 percent. The number in Missouri rose from 32,133 students in 2015-2016 to 36,006 in 2017-2018, a 12 percent increase. State data shows slightly different numbers but a similar pattern, rising from 32,354 in 2015-2016 to 36,055 in 2017-2018. The same data set shows the number of students in Franklin County was 604 in 2015-2016, 649 in 2016-2017 and 584 in 2017-2018. In the 2018-2019 school year, it dropped to 547 according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.
According to the National Institutes of Health, housing is strongly correlated with physical and mental health, and insecurity among young children is associated with poor health, lower weight and developmental risks.
Savage and Grainger both said they prefer the term “families in transition” over “homeless.”
“Homeless has such a stigma attached,” Savage said. “Transition denotes temporary. The hope we’re trying to project to these families is that their situation is going to get better.”
Case by Case
The districts’ primary way of identifying students who need help is a survey attached to school registration each year, which includes a residency form. If a parent puts a check by question 2, “how often in the past year have you been without permanent housing?,” administrators reach out to the parents to let them know about resources like school counseling and donated goods. Teachers and staff also share names of students they suspect of being without a permanent home with the liaison for a follow-up.
“We don’t know unless somebody speaks up, and so if a kid or their parent doesn’t speak up, or a grandparent doesn’t speak up, then we’ll never know,” Grainger said.
The liaisons have different district-specific resources they can lean on. Grainger, for example, often gets support from Jefferson Franklin Community Action Corporation. And in Pacific a districtwide Safety Net Committee streamlines donations and fundraising to be used for the school’s children in need.
They are also almost all involved in the Franklin County Homeless Task Force, attending monthly meetings with leaders of nonprofits like the United Way, Grace’s Place and the Franklin County Community Resource Board.
“That helps agencies know who we are because it’s easier to make a referral to someone you know,” Savage said.
They can share situations they’re seeing with one another and ask for advice. They also can brainstorm solutions for holes in the safety net. The biggest problem? According to multiple liaisons, it’s a lack of emergency housing. Grace’s Place in Washington provides a 30-day emergency shelter for children up to age 18. Families can try Agape House in St. Clair, the only homeless shelter in the county, if there are available beds.
Not everyone in that situation relies on help through the district. Many reach out to family or friends. Savage said she noticed the biggest change not immediately following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but months later. Recently, she is seeing more families “doubling up,” or living with other families.
“People think (we serve) all unaccompanied minors, and I’m not saying we don’t have that, but the population I’ve seen this year is a lot of families that are having economic hardships and having to (move in with) friends, family or someone advertising a room on Craigslist to survive,” Savage said. “If the child is one of ours, then their family is one of ours.”
In many cases it’s because of economic hardships brought on by the pandemic.
“We still haven’t managed to solve emergency housing for families,” Bechard said. “So when they’re getting evicted on a Friday night, there’s really nowhere for them to go. We can put them in a hotel room for a few days, but that’s not a long-term solution, and some of these people need a 30-day or 60-day solution to try to get back on their feet and help stabilize them in their lives. (For) the other social workers, that is the main issue. We talk about it every day.”
At the monthly Franklin County Homeless Task Force meeting Tuesday, Feb. 2, the liaisons also took a moment to share some memorable examples of a situation working out just right.
Annie Foncannon, director of the Franklin County Community Resource Board, remembered a time she was trying to find transportation for a child whose parents couldn’t drive them home from band practice in another district. An older woman ended up hearing about the situation and volunteered for the almost daily gig, even though she’d never met the child in need.
She was going to band competitions by the end just for fun, Foncannon said. The woman became part of that child’s support system.
And Savage told The Missourian about receiving donated gift cards to JCPenney and Kohl’s for students to buy dress clothes for their high school graduation and job interviews. In a couple instances, she’s even had graduation caps and gowns gifted, a powerful visual reminder of a goal of every homeless liaison.
“The ultimate reward is graduation, watching them walk and setting goals and helping them know that things are achievable, and knowing we’re there to support them,” Savage said. “They’re our kids. They’re going to be our kids even after May 27. That’s one of my biggest rewards.”