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Doing More for Homeless Children in West Virginia

Education is an essential part of our children’s lives. All of our students are expected to meet the same challenging state academic achievement standards, but a student’s environment outside of school has a profound impact on their ability to learn and achieve in the classroom.

Every child needs a loving, caring adult in their life. It’s the most important promise you can make to a child, and when that promise is broken we see the horrific situation we are in today that’s led to more than 10,000 West Virginia public school students left homeless — and we know that number is likely much higher. In Jefferson County alone, about one in six students are homeless. How can our children learn if they’re sleeping on a different couch every night of the week or forced to sleep in a car in a parking lot?

According to federal data in the 2016-2017 school year, the national average graduation rate for homeless students was 64%. Students experiencing homelessness are 87% more likely to drop out of school than their housed peers, according to a February 2019 report from SchoolHouse Connection, a national non-profit organization working to overcome homelessness through education.

As soon as I learned of the disturbing increase of homeless children and youth in West Virginia, I wrote a letter to U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos outlining these concerning statistics regarding child homelessness increases in West Virginia in the past year and asked her to visit West Virginia to see firsthand how it’s impacting West Virginia children. Since then, I have spoken with Secretary DeVos about innovative ways to address student homelessness, and secured her commitment to visit West Virginia in the near future to see the devastating impact of homelessness on our students.

Recently, I sent a letter to county superintendents, county attendance directors, high school principals, and high school counselors, outlining the resources currently available for homeless youth, highlighting the need for accurate reporting, and offering my office’s assistance to families in need. Schools are best positioned to identify and create access to housing, treatment, child care, and provide for other needs of homeless students and their families, and I want to empower our schools to help homeless students with every resource available to them.

The letter outlines two critical programs that provide assistance to children and youth experiencing homelessness. One of those programs is the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which is a federal law that provides formula grants to states through the Education for Homeless Children and Youth grant program. That program helps ensure that homeless children have equal access to free and appropriate public education.

The West Virginia Department of Education distributes this federal funding via sub grants to local education agencies which facilitate the enrollment, attendance, and success in school of homeless children and youth.

Unfortunately, only nine counties applied for and received McKinney-Vento funding for the current funding period. The U.S. Department of Education and the West Virginia Department of Education must work hand-in-hand to ensure that federal support for homeless children is reaching the students who need it most.

The other program that counties can use to help homeless students and youth is the Title-I, Part A set aside. These funds are given to local education agencies (LEA) with a high population of low-income and at-risk students. LEAs are given discretion to set aside between $500 to $50,000 of funds to provide services for homeless students that are not ordinarily provided to other Title I students, including academic expenses like SAT/ACT testing, tutoring, and school supplies, as well as personal care items like clothing, glasses, and counseling.

While all counties utilize the Title I set-aside, the amount varies from $500 to $50,000. These folks are already stretched thin on the front lines and need additional help to solve this problem.

The only way to reverse the cycle of poverty and youth homelessness is to combat this issue head-on. Between the teachers, county school boards, state Board of Education, Department of Education and Department of Health and Human Resources; federal agencies like the U.S. Department of Education, local organizations, and all involved parties, we must establish a more coordinated intervention at the local, state, and federal level to make that happen. That is why I will introduce legislation that would enable states to provide greater services to children and families that are experiencing homelessness and encourage the development of innovative solutions.

Our action today on childhood homelessness can change the trajectory of West Virginia for generations to come, and that’s why I will continue to fight for West Virginia’s homeless children and youth in every way possible until we reach our goal of zero homeless children in West Virginia. Even one child without a place to call home is one too many.

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