Homeless agencies across the state estimate there are 2,500 homeless students in Oakland County alone. The worst part is, said Sara Orris, Homeless Student Education Services Coordinator of Oakland Schools’ Community Programs, Special Populations, that number is likely way off.
“We know that’s just a fraction of the number of homeless students out there,” she said.
Orris estimates the amount is actually somewhere between 5,500 and 6,000 children in Oakland County.
The figures are a sad reminder of some of the realities students can face. They are also an affirmation of the necessity of Oakland Schools’ Homeless Student Education Services, which has been around for 15 years.
According to Orris, providing homelessness support to all 28 Oakland County school districts and charter schools is the mandate of the McKinney-Vento Law and the core of her work for Oakland Schools.
Orris’ job is to know the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act like the back of her hand and to then pass that knowledge on to homeless student liaisons in each district, making sure they also understand the law. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act is a federal law under which the government funds homeless shelter programs. It also outlines the way Oakland Schools can appropriately allocate the grant money provided to assist districts and students.
“We help with collaboration,” explained Orris of Oakland Schools’ role. “We help bring everyone to the table and make sure we are providing one message together.”
Orris said districts are required by law to “take away any barriers a homeless student may have” to being provided with a public education. Such barriers may include a student needing to be outfitted with proper clothing and winter gear, emergency food, shelter and transportation to and from school. Orris helps districts plan for these needs in advance and find these resources when they need them, or, if they can’t be found, she coordinates state grant funds to help pay for items needed in an emergency situation.
“There’s a balancing act of helping get kids’ needs met and supporting the districts,” explained Orris, who added that finding enough beds for all the homeless students is an issue.
“It’s a constant battle,” she added. “There are consistently fewer shelter beds than homeless individuals.”
Orris said she believes the number of homeless students in Oakland County is much higher than calculated because of a population of students known as “unaccompanied youth.” These students are basically “couch surfers” who cannot live at home and move from place to place frequently. For a variety of reasons, these students are not with their parents anymore.
Susan Benson, program director of Oakland Schools’ Special Populations, Community Programs, the division that oversees Homeless Student Services, said those students are harder to identify, in part because “these are amazingly resilient students.”
Benson said the homeless population is one that suffers from many stereotypes.
“People have a perception that if you just tried harder, you wouldn’t be poor, but that’s both dismissive and incorrect,” Benson explained. “It’s a system that needs attention. There’s so much to be done to support and champion this segment of the student body.”