The following guidance, requested and informed by local homeless liaisons, provides a common set of principles and best practices that local homeless liaisons can apply and use to properly and consistently identify situations, experienced by students and their families, that constitute homelessness under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act ("McKinney-Vento") and reauthorized by the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015. This guidance is intended to provide information, best practices, and interview questions to ensure access by students to a public education and the opportunities to succeed in school protected by federal law.
School staff suspecting a family or student is homeless or struggling with housing instability should refer the family to the homeless liaison or designee to have a conversation with the family/student regarding their living arrangement. Such conversations should be conducted privately. The information gained from that conversation should be evaluated against the definition of homelessness in McKinney-Vento to determine whether the Act applies. (See McKinney-Vento Sec. 111434a) The interview questions below, in guideline #7, may be used to facilitate those conversations.
Interactions with families and students should focus on building a strong working relationship that supports open communication and full participation in school. Information shared by families and youth during interviews is private and its confidentiality is legally required. Under McKinney-Vento, information shared about housing insecurity is excluded from the definition of "directory information" in the federal Family Educational Rights Privacy Act (FERPA), a federal law that prohibits disclosures personally identifiable information about students contained in educational records. (See McKinney-Vento Sec 11432(g)(3)(G)). Other confidentiality provisions in law may also apply to disclosures by students or parents about homelessness.
Given the sensitivity surrounding housing insecurity as well as legal privacy requirements, homeless liaisons and district staff should never contact landlords, housing authorities, and neighbors without consent from the parent/youth to verify residency or homelessness, and verification of residency or homelessness should never involve unauthorized discussions about students with such individuals. Liaisons are trained and equipped to make such determinations about homelessness, and school staff should contact the Homeless Liaison for their school district with any questions about supporting students who are homeless.
Housing screening tools are generic questionnaires used by districts, during enrollment, to gather information about students' residency in the district, including whether a student may be homeless. Frequently, such screening tools or similar affidavits fail to capture the complexity surrounding a student or family's experience of housing insecurity and will not yield the information needed to properly determine whether a student is homeless. Inappropriate use of a screening tool can result in under-identification of homeless families and youth resulting in missed opportunities to intervene or an over-identification of homeless families and youth and an associated misallocation of resources.
While housing screening tools or affidavits may meet a district's desire for written documentation supporting residency or homelessness, for the reasons described in guideline #1, determinations of homelessness will often depend upon the liaison's relationship with the family and, as appropriate, observations made during home-visits. Ultimately, decisions to deny or delay access to school or school resources for students experiencing homelessness should not depend exclusively on the contents of housing screening tools or affidavits. Proof of homelessness cannot be conditioned on the production of documentation from a landlord, sponsor, or from the people with whom students and families are doubled up.
The homeless liaison is responsible for training and monitoring staff on the identification of students who are homeless. Liaisons should monitor staff on an ongoing basis and provide follow up training as needed.
A student/family does not need to use the word "homeless" to meet the definition of homelessness. Appropriate use of the interview questions, listed below in guideline #7, may assist districts and local homeless liaisons to identify families and youth who are homeless or struggling with housing instability.
Please note that there is no time limit on homelessness. For example, families/students may be in a shelter for up to 24 months or longer. Doubled up situations can last for years. Families/students are considered homeless until they have acquired fixed, regular and adequate housing.
When a district denies a student eligibility or enrollment under McKinney-Vento, the homeless liaison must inform the student and their family of the right to appeal the decision. The homeless liaison must also facilitate the dispute resolution process. The student must be enrolled in and attend the school selected by the parent/student pending a resolution of the dispute. For more, see the Homeless Education Advisory posted on the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) webpage.
School enrollment is based on the student's, not the parent's, homelessness and where the student has been or is currently residing. Enrollment should not depend upon where the student or family intends to reside in the future.
Families and students often struggle to find affordable housing. Additional barriers may also complicate the situation and leave families/student homeless longer than expected. Such barriers include, but are not limited to a prior eviction, utility arrearages, poor credit, bankruptcy, CORI/SORI issues, children or number of children, immigration documentation, and language. Homeless liaisons should refer families with barriers to local housing advocates and attorneys when appropriate.
Living arrangements are not always clear, and certain arrangements may, simultaneously, have characteristics of permanent housing and homelessness. The rising use of room rentals is an example of this. Though a family is paying rent, a room may not be adequate to meet the physical and psychological needs of the student. Many room rental arrangements are not regular and far from secure or stable. When determining homelessness, liaisons should consider the context that requires the student/family to live in a room rental arrangement, the local housing market, and other factors that may contribute to housing instability. If the family is in another district, a conversation with the local homeless liaison may also shed light on the situation. Determinations may ultimately depend upon the discretion of the local liaison.
Further technical assistance can be provided by visiting the DESE website, speaking with a regional liaison, or contacting the Department Elementary and Secondary Education at (718) 338-3700.
Last Updated: May 28, 2020
Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
75 Pleasant Street, Malden, MA 02148-4906
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