The ‘invisible population:’ NKY school districts discuss state of student homelessness 

Haley Parnell
Haley Parnell
Haley is a reporter for LINK nky. Email her at [email protected]

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This story originally appeared in the Aug. 4 edition of the Weekly LINK Reader.

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As a young adult, David Childs experienced homelessness. It wasn’t because of addiction or mental illness—he even grew up in what he called a stable home, so he encourages those working with children in similar situations to not just assume what homelessness looks like.

“The world knows ‘homeless’ as a guy on the corner, begging for money,” Newport Services, Tools, and Empowerment program coordinator Kristy McNally said. “This (student homelessness) is an invisible population that people do not really understand.”

Homelessness refers to children and young people lacking a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence, according to the McKinney-Vento law, which is the primary piece of federal legislation that provides rights and services to children and youth experiencing homelessness.

Just under 2,500 students were identified as experiencing homelessness during the 2021-2022 school year across nine NKY Metro school districts, according to data from the Kentucky Department of Education. Those districts, which are part of the Northern Kentucky Homeless Education Collaborative, are: Covington Independent, Campbell County Schools, Kenton County Schools, Boone County Schools, Southgate Independent, Newport Independent, Dayton Independent, Bellevue Independent, and Erlanger/Elsmere Independent. 

The Northern Kentucky Homeless Education Collaborative comprises the nine homeless liaisons in each district who meet monthly. As part of the McKinney-Vento law, each district must have a homeless liaison. 

“In my case, I just didn’t have a lot of resources,” Childs said. “I didn’t have a family that comes from wealth, and so I was in situations where I didn’t have a place to stay, but fortunately, I was connected with Lighthouse Youth Services in Cincinnati, so I had a place to lay my head, but I had to be part of a homeless organization.”

Childs said it was tough to be a college student, not having anything to eat or not knowing where the next meal would come from, and said not having those available resources affected the academic process.

McNally agreed that student homelessness impacts education, which is why people like her are designated in schools to help the students and families; however, she said this isn’t an intelligence issue, it’s a situational one. 

McNally said these students have things weighing on their minds that they might not even realize, and then are expected to sit in a classroom. 

“Think about it,” McNally said. “If I’m not arriving to school on time, if I’m not coming to school consistently– because now we’ve moved to other places, or if I’m concerned with ‘where are we going to be tonight?’ And now I’ve got to come into class and be like everybody else, but I have three other things that are really weighing on my brain, and now I have to truck ahead and try to learn this math problem.”

McNally said when she works with her students who get frustrated over things like math problems, she tells them to think about it in a different way.

“That problem isn’t going to do anything for you—you’re right, but the fact that you now know how to do that problem makes you walk a little taller,” McNally said. “It makes you make decisions in a better way.” 

How did the region get into the state that it’s in?

Brighton Center Marketing & Communications Specialist Deana Sowders said COVID-19 exacerbated existing issues.

After the pandemic, Sowders said, a sharp increase in the cost of living and the lack of attainable housing put families into situations they never thought they would be in. She also said a daycare crisis is contributing to parents not being able to work.

“So, the parents have no income, and so suddenly they’re months behind on their rent, and they’re being evicted,” Sowders said. “It’s just this massive cycle. I think it accelerated because of the pandemic, but I think it was always there, and it was always happening.”

She also said the lack of resources before the pandemic contributed to the state of families experiencing homelessness today.

“The combination that we’ve experienced in the last three years has become overwhelming because we didn’t have the resources in place on a massive scale that we needed to make a dent in it in such a way that would have prevented the massive situation we’re in now,” Sowders said.  

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McNally said the families she works with at Newport Independent School District don’t self-identify as homeless because there is a lot of fear and embarrassment around the issue.

“The majority of the students we work with are in doubled-up situations, so they don’t really classify that as homeless because they’re at their aunt Jane’s, or my mom’s friend or whatever; so, it’s always a home of some sort,” McNally said.  

Childs agreed that fear can contribute to a lack of communication between families and school districts.

“Knowledge is really important, so schools can have conversations with students and with parents to find out exactly what they need in a safe environment,” he said. “Because often people don’t want to communicate—they’re embarrassed.”

McNally said Newport has 237 students out of their 1,400-student population who are experiencing homelessness.

Most school districts, McNally said, have paperwork at the time of enrollment to identify students that are housing insecure. 

Kenton County School District Superintendent Henry Webb said their process is similar.

If a family classifies themselves as homeless, McNally immediately gets involved. 

“Then I introduce myself to the family,” McNally said. ”Give them resources and let them know that I’m part of this educational journey with them and their students while they’re here with us in our district. Basically, a person that is going to be right by your side to make sure that every educational need is met.”

If a student identifies as homeless after they’ve been enrolled in the school system for a while, Webb said it becomes more challenging to gather information on them. He said schools work with their family resource center to make sure they identify those students.

Family resource centers establish a link between families and the services necessary to meet basic needs and remove barriers to learning. According to Kenton County Schools, the centers make referrals in health and social services, employment information and adult education classes, child care services, substance abuse, and family crisis intervention. 

About 525 out of roughly 14,000 students identify as homeless in Kenton County Schools, Webb said. That number is district-wide, which reaches mostly the suburbs and rural areas, with some urban population.

“We’re a very large school district, and that number in comparison has been fairly consistent the last two—three years,” Webb said. “It was a little higher before the pandemic, which makes me believe that we’ve got some kids that may be unidentified.”

Childs said when people think of poverty, their minds go to urban areas. 

“Rural poverty is a real thing, and the resources are scarce,” Childs said. “When people think poverty, they think urban. When they think of black and brown communities, they think urban. But there’s a segment of the population and there’s diversity in rural counties, as well. That’s where a lot of the work needs to be done.”

Those folks are often invisible, and it’s a different kind of poverty, a different kind of homelessness in rural settings. For example, there’s no public transportation, a lot of the food programs are not available that you would have in the city. Now, I don’t want to mischaracterize and say urban poverty is easier. It just looks different.”

Another thing Webb said the district does is to ensure every student has an “adult advocate” who knows the student and their situation.

“One of the reasons we have that as an expectation and a belief is so kids, whatever they’re experiencing, whether it’s homelessness or other issues, or successes, that the adult advocate would know that and help advocate for that child,” Webb said.  

The Sunday Story: watch the video about student homelessness in NKY.

Working directly with these families is essential because it helps them feel empowered, McNally said.

“You don’t feel powerful as a parent because you’ve been knocked down over and over and over again,” McNally said. “You’re in this huge thing called the school system, which is intimidating as hell, especially if you don’t have a very high education yourself. You’re intimidated, so you have this person that’s going to walk alongside you to navigate this whole process with you and pay attention to that student.”

Another way of identifying students throughout the school year who may not have initially identified as homeless, McNally said, is to notice common trends such as arriving at school late when they may not have previously. She said she trains teachers to know what to look for, and they are required every year to be trained on McKinney-Vento.

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Kenton County Schools follow the “Multi-Tiered System of Supports,” Webb said, which covers behavior, mental health, social/emotional strategies, etc.  

“Part of that training helps teachers identify students that are struggling socially/emotionally, and typically, not always, but lots of times, students that are experiencing homelessness struggle socially/emotionally,” Webb said. “So, our teachers and staff are trained to identify that.”

The McKinney-Vento law helps students experiencing homelessness maintain a stable education process by requiring districts to work together to provide student transportation.  

“We have to abide by the law and work together whether they are with us or went to another district and no matter what their housing situation has come to,” McNally said. “The whole point is to make sure that the educational process has been as stable as possible.”

Should a student move to live in Newport’s school district but already attended school in a different community, they do not have to enroll in Newport schools.  

“We are not going to make a transfer to Newport schools because all that’s going to do is set them back three-plus months in the educational process,” McNally said. “That is a law.”

The school does what’s in the student’s best interests, McNally said. Therefore, if a student belongs to a district and moves, the two school districts will work together to transport the student. McNally said that one district would pay for transportation to school, and the other would pay to transport from school. The districts must do so for as long as the student needs. 

Webb said he thinks the transportation piece is one of the strongest parts of the McKinney-Vento Act.

“Unfortunately, sometimes, parents and families have to move during the school year, and they don’t want to tell us because they’re afraid if they tell us, that child will not be able to stay in that environment,” he said. “The last thing a child experiencing social/emotional issues, experiencing homelessness needs is to be uprooted from their school, their friends, their environment, their teachers and their counselors who know them.”

This sometimes means lengthy bus rides, Webb said. He said their longest bus ride in the county is about an hour and a half.

Districts could apply for the three-year McKinney-Vento homeless federal grant, McNally said, which could help with transportation costs. It is also how her position is funded at Newport Schools.

Aside from transportation, schools also provide help with things like clothing and food.

“So often, whether it’s a child, young adult, they’ll have like two outfits,” Childs said. “So sometimes they might have one pair of pants and three shirts. So, they’re going to change the shirt to make it seem like they have more than one outfit. You don’t often have anywhere to put your possessions. You have to travel lightly.”

This is why Kentucky’s family resource centers advocate within schools to reduce educational barriers like clothing, food, or other basic needs, McNally said. 

“When I was younger, we were impoverished, and I did go to school to eat,” Childs said. “Often, I didn’t have a meal until I got to school. I don’t want to mischaracterize my mom—we always had food on the table, but we were often hungry. And the school feeding children, that’s another resource.”

Intentional programming is essential, McNally said, as opposed to just canvassing an entire school. Rather, selecting a student for a program where they will meet people in similar situations and find success.

Childs agrees. 

“You wouldn’t believe what the circumstances that some of the young people in our schools are going through—the living conditions that they’re a part of, and for them to even be at the school sometimes is a major feat,” he said. “And so, we have to be thoughtful about what kinds of things we can provide for them—breaking the mold. It’s not one size fits all.” 

Other types of help that the school system provides, Webb said, include free and reduced lunch, help with academic fees, emergency funding for brief hotel stays, gas cards for families to transport kids, and connecting families with their community partners.

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One example of that is the Brighton Center. 

The Brighton Center gets the most referrals for housing from Newport, Covington, and Erlanger/Elsmere school districts, according to Housing & Family Well-Being Director Jenny Wiley. However, their Street Outreach program and Homeward Bound shelter work with all districts in the region.

Runaway, homeless, and street youth are provided street-based services through The Youth Street Outreach program. The program helps those subjected to or at risk of abuse, sexual exploitation, and trafficking. Kids and young adults ages 16-21 also receive outreach, prevention, individualized assessment, service linkages, case planning, and follow-up through the program.  

Brighton Center’s Homeward Bound Shelter is a 24-hour emergency shelter in Covington that provides runaway, homeless, abused, neglected, and dependent youth ages 11-17 a safe environment and residential treatment services. The shelter is the only direct-access emergency shelter for youth under 18 in Northern Kentucky.

“I think people perceive a single man with mental health and addiction issues, and the actuality is there are families with children and youth,” Wiley said. “They’re all part of the population.”

Brighton Center Street Outreach Supervisor Dawn Carson said there’s an ideology that “some kind of magic” exists to fix the problem. She said there are time constraints when people are at their most vulnerable moments that can’t be solved overnight.

“It takes a lot of work and a lot of time to build a person back up and get them back involved in the community because they’ve been shunned so much by the community that they’ve lost all trust and all faith,” Carson said.  

Brighton Center provides other resources for families and individuals experiencing homelessness, such as their Stable Families and Rapid ReHousing programs.

Stable Families serves families with children in grades K-3 who are at imminent risk of homelessness to stabilize their housing situation. The goal is for parents to maintain housing while children maintain school stability.

Rapid ReHousing works with individuals experiencing homelessness to connect them with quality, affordable housing, and wrap-around support services.

“I think something to think about, particularly with youth, people see homeless generally and think it’s due to a fault of their own or something that they didn’t do, and a lot of our youth, they turn 18, and parents are kicking them out,” Brighton Center Youth Services Director Kate Kassis said. “They don’t have the support.”

Ending student homelessness is not a reality, so McNally said they must focus on what can be done, starting with getting rid of the stigma attached to it, raising awareness of what it is, and educating people on how school systems are helping with the issue.

“I think the solution is exactly what we’re doing and continuing to raise the bar because it works,” McNally said. “That’s the solution. Doing whatever it takes to make a student’s educational journey as stable and solid as it can be.”

As far as a regional solution, Wiley said Northern Kentucky needs more affordable housing. Sowders said that within the last few years, there had been a loss of hundreds of affordable housing units, meaning housing that costs not more than 30% of a family’s or an individual’s income. More specifically, Wiley said there had been a loss of 361 units at City Heights in Covington, 232 units at the former Victoria Square apartments in Newport, and roughly 200 units at the former River Chase apartments in Newport. 

“We’ve specifically lost hundreds of units that were at 30% of people’s income, so it made it possible to live, and to pay for things, to get to a job, and put gas in a car, and buy groceries,” Sowders said. “Because if you’re hungry and you can’t get to work, you can’t have an income, and it’s just a cycle that keeps repeating.” 

Now a professor at Northern Kentucky University, Childs said he always likes to give credit to Lighthouse Youth Services, which provided him with resources that helped him acquire housing and get through college.

“The key was just empathy and not treating me as if I had made all these mistakes, and I deserve to be poor,” Childs said. “It helped give me a leg up and a hand up to be able to go forward. I think that was so important for me.”

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