Children who live in a shelter or motel may have a roof over their heads but can feel like they’re wearing a label on their shirt even if no one knows their address. Shame is only one of the burdens they carry. School-age children who are experiencing homelessness are also likely to have more learning disabilities, health problems, behavioral issues, depression, and anxiety than the general population; in Barre alone there are 83 students without permanent housing.
Until about 50 years ago, Americans often thought of a homeless person as an adult male who may have preferred to live freely without a home or family to tie him down. By the 1980s, it became obvious that women and children were increasingly finding themselves homeless even if their numbers were fewer than adult males.
The McKinney-Vento Act of 1987 (originally the Stewart McKinney Homeless Assistance Act) was the first federal legislation to address the new reality of homelessness. Among other provisions the bill sought to make sure children with no permanent home address had access to an appropriate education even if their families were dealing with trauma. The bill defined homelessness as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”
Children would be considered homeless if they were living in temporary housing, for example, motels, hotels, or camping grounds. Children would also be defined as homeless if their housing was inadequate. They might be sleeping in cars, parks, abandoned buildings, bus stations, train stations, or other public spaces.
The bill allowed families to register their children for school even if the usual documents had been lost as the family moved around. Because going from school to school can have a negative effect on learning, a family could opt to keep a child in a familiar school despite the fact that they were no longer living in that district, and transportation would be provided.
Because of this bill, every local educational agency has a liaison for children and families who are experiencing homelessness. The liaison connects with families who meet the definition of homelessness and works with them to make sure their children have the same learning opportunities as others in the district.
In the Barre Unified Union District, this position is held by Rebecca Baruzzi, who is now known as the School Community Liaison. This is Baruzzi’s first year in Barre, however, she knew this would be no ordinary school opening. Barre’s students were returning to school after a summer unlike any they’d ever known. There are now 83 children in the district who are identified as homeless. Approximately 20 of the 83 lost their homes in the July flood.
Baruzzi recalls that first day of school back in August. “It was pouring rain. Teachers heard comments from the kids and saw that they were anxious … the weather had become a trigger for them.”
Baruzzi has a long to-do list. It’s her responsibility to identify students who were known to be homeless in the previous year and to see if there have been any changes in their situation. She must also identify those who may be new to homelessness and to make sure their families know their rights under the McKinney-Vento bill. She’ll make referrals for children who need medical, dental, or other health-related services.
Baruzzi knows that transience can be a way of life for those without that “fixed address.” During the course of a single year, a family may move from their own housing to living with relatives to spending time in a shelter or motel. Baruzzi might assist children who are leaving Barre to help them transfer smoothly. She may also help receiving teachers welcome a new student with signs for the classroom door and a gift packet of school supplies. A liaison will reach out to families to share information about extracurricular activities or tutoring and can assign peer mentors or buddies. These routines are helpful for all new students. For homeless children who may have been registered at three different schools during the course of a single school year, they’re critical.
A liaison’s job description also involves reaching out to families “to build their trust and to empower them to … increase their children’s success in school.”
High on Baruzzi’s personal list is a plan to help the Barre schools connect with community partners, for example, nonprofits and volunteers who can offer “tutoring, coaching, clothing for emergencies and outerwear.” She notes that “we need to develop relationships to make outside resources more available and effective.”
Barre’s new liaison feels she has a special responsibility, “I grew up in a place of privilege. Things worked for me and I want them to work for all children.”