On April 21, Cirien Saadeh sat down with Minneapolis Public Schools Director of Homeless and Highly Mobile Student Support Services Charlotte Kinzley to discuss homeless and highly-mobile student support services. According to Kinzley, in the 2021-2022 school year, MPS had approximately 2,000 homeless and highly mobile students. Numbers have been steadily increasing since the end of the pandemic-era eviction moratorium and the exhaustion of pandemic emergency rental assistance.
Cirien: Let’s start with introductions.
Charlotte: My name is Charlotte Kinzley and I'm the Director of Homeless Highly Mobile Student Support Services at MPS.
Cirien: That’s a really specific title. Tell us what that is.
Charlotte: The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act is a federal law that requires that students who are experiencing homelessness have the same right to a public education as their stably-housed peers. Every district is required to have a liaison to make sure that schools are identifying and ensuring that their rights are protected. I think it's also been very strategic that MPS has invested in this work over and above what many districts are able to provide. This is done in part because we have higher homeless numbers, but also in part because it's a value of the district to support these students knowing that they're facing a lot of barriers because of a lack of stable housing.
Cirien: Can you tell us about your work as a liaison? What’s your to-do list like?
Charlotte: I work as part of an incredible team that works hard to remove barriers. We have staff that office out of People Serving People and are connected with the shelter team who are making sure that as families experience homelessness, they are connected to school right away. We fund short-term, education-approved cabs, to drive students to school after they move so they do not experience a delay while they wait to get routed on a school bus or other consistent transport option.
It's not simple to do at all, but it's very basic to a student's access to school. We make sure that they have access to school consistently during a period of instability. Sometimes school is the only thing that stays stable when someone is experiencing a lot of instability within housing. We also do a lot of work to prevent homelessness and to increase access to housing stability resources. This includes things like navigating shelter and how to get into shelter if people are in that situation. Stable Homes Stable Schools is our biggest resource in terms of access to stability. Nineteen of our elementary schools with the highest rates of homelessness have access to housing subsidies, eviction prevention money, and wraparound services to keep people housed. SHSS is an initiative that we help coordinate in partnership with the city of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority.
Cirien: Can you tell us a little bit more about the partnerships you mentioned?
Charlotte: Stable Home Stable Schools was an initiative that originally came from Lucy Laney. Lucy Laney is one of our sites that has the highest rates of homelessness. The executive director of the Housing Authority watched the documentary, “Love Them First,” and had this idea “could we partner with Lucy Laney and provide housing subsidies so that these families can get stable?” He brought that idea to the mayor and the mayor wanted to expand the idea to 15 schools. That's where it all started. Now we're in 19 of the elementary schools that have the highest rates of homelessness. Families currently experiencing homelessness have access to three or more years of rental assistance plus wrap around support. The logic is that by stabilizing housing, kids are better able to learn at school, caregivers are better able to engage in school, and we just have a better experience for our children. The access to one-time prevention support helps keep students from ever becoming homeless in the first place.
Cirien: What does being homeless and highly mobile mean to students and their families?
Charlotte: I think there's 2,000 different situations for every student that we see, but I can give you some generals. When people talk about homelessness, a lot of what they talk about is what they can see with their eyes. So we can see encampments and absolutely that is something we should be talking about and paying attention to, but there are so many situations that we just don't see. It's the invisible homelessness that is very prevalent in our community.
Sixty percent of what we see is doubled up or couch hopping. And I want to be really clear about what that looks like; that is not two families deciding to live together, to share the rent, or to share childcare. Those are arrangements that can be very stable and really beneficial to everyone involved. These are situations where people have nowhere to go, and so someone says that they can come stay with them. Sometimes that's for a couple nights and sometimes it takes longer than that, but it is not a stable situation. Thirty percent of the time students are in emergency shelter and 10% are either in hotels or are unsheltered with the majority of this group in hotels and motels. We do have a small number of families who are in encampments, in a vehicle, or in a place not meant for human habitation, and we consider them unsheltered. All episodes of homelessness carry stress and risk, but that is a particularly dangerous situation for kids
Cirien: Given all this, what can the district do, and not do, given budget constraints?
Charlotte: One important area is transportation. Students have a right to transportation back to their same school regardless of where they're staying. And that is a critical piece of the federal law, the McKinney-Vento Act, that allows students to stay in the same school. We're transporting students from all across the metro. We'll transport up to an hour away. Of course, all of this is based on what's in the best interest of that student. If it would be in their best interest to transfer to a place closer to their current address, they absolutely have the right to do that, but most often it's best for kids to maintain that stability and that consistency. So we're transporting all across the district. We are hopeful that a proposed shift in legislation proposed this year [HF 2497, Article 7, Sections 14 and 16] would fully fund McKinney-Vento transportation. Currently these costs are not consistently reimbursed and our district has to bear the financial burden.
Cirien: Can we talk about students who don’t have family? Is there a priority group of students that you have focused on?
Charlotte: Within our department, this is the second school year where we've been able to fund a counseling position that's specifically focused on our high school students who are experiencing homelessness. We prioritize the students who are unaccompanied, or not living with a legal guardian. Our counselor supports things like taking them to get a birth certificate or an ID and she helps school staff learn how to do that navigation as well. This is a a group of students who need more than what they're getting in order to graduate, have post-secondary options and to avoid some of those systems' involvement pieces that don't end up working for kids.These are young people working to navigate all the things that are really difficult for adults to navigate and needing to do all of that while trying to finish high school. We’re grateful to be able to remove some of those barriers knowing that graduation is a critical protective factor to not experiencing homelessness as an adult.