Photo: Bionic Teaching
Texas’ 85th legislative session kicked off last month. Lawmakers now have until the end of May to balance a state budget three percent smaller than that of the previous session. Having the power of the purse, the legislature must decide which government programs to prioritize and which to trim—or cut.
Policymakers have a responsibility to be thrifty with taxpayer dollars, especially in times of tight budgets. One way to accomplish this is by investing in initiatives that are likely to yield outsized returns. There is a major opportunity to do just that by making modest changes to current programs aimed at advancing the welfare of youth experiencing homelessness. Through higher educational attainment, greater rates of employment, and increased civic involvement, investments in young people have been shown to pay dividends over time.
Over the 2014-2015 school year, Texas public schools identified more than 113,294 students experiencing homelessness. Federal and state law provides these homeless students with protections intended to improve their educational outcomes. A central provision of such statutes is that schools or school districts must designate homeless liaisons, personnel tasked with identifying homeless students and facilitating their enrollment and attendance in education. Additionally, liaisons may seek to connect homeless students and their families with services available in the community to ameliorate their circumstances. These liaisons play a crucial role in securing the educational success of homeless students. But new research indicates that liaisons in Texas are currently facing challenges that limit their ability to help young people succeed.
A forthcoming survey of homeless liaisons by the Texas Network of Youth Services (TNOYS) explored whether these professionals working in the State of Texas have the support and resources they need to implement the provisions of state and federal law. Of the 1,224 homeless liaisons designated by school districts, charter schools, and education service centers in Texas, approximately one-third took part in the survey. Respondents identified a range of areas that could be improved to help them put homeless students on a path toward success in adulthood.
Specifically, participating homeless liaisons indicated the broad nature of their positions hinders their capacity to serve homeless children and youth. Most reported working at a district-wide level, and almost half said they hold at least three separate job titles. Indeed, a mere two percent of respondents listed the word “homeless” as part of their primary job title. And one particularly over-burdened liaison noted that she had over 25 distinct job duties.
Such competing responsibilities diminish the amount of time liaisons can dedicate to identifying and serving homeless students. The median amount of time liaisons reported spending on their tasks related to homeless students was two hours per week; those working directly with homeless students reported spending three hours each week on similar tasks. Unsurprisingly, nearly one-third of respondents reported not having enough time for their homeless liaison duties.
Being stretched for time is of particular concern to homeless liaisons working in metropolitan areas. One liaison serving urban middle-school students explained: “Instead of leaving at 4pm when I am allowed to end my work day, I…end up staying past 8pm. I arrive to work at 7:30am many, many times due to all the duties that are tied to my position… And that’s without even getting a chance to touch on the homeless liaison [responsibilities].”
Many homeless liaisons also find it difficult to access vital services in the community for homeless students, including homeless shelters or transitional living programs. Based on survey responses, the problem appears to be two-fold: information regarding available resources in the community is often out-of-date or not easily obtainable; and, in some communities, resources simply fail to meet the magnitude of need or are entirely nonexistent.
While research suggests that shelter, stability, and other basic needs are key contributors to educational success, homeless liaisons ranked the training they received on how to obtain such resources last of all the various topics on which they were instructed. To make the situation worse, some of the most vital services that homeless young people need are simply unavailable in many Texas communities. Approximately 93 percent of respondents serving rural areas indicated that there were no known youth shelters or transitional living programs in their area. In fact, nearly 90 percent said there were no known homeless shelters in their community at all.
Homeless children and youth in Texas face severe challenges accessing educational and supportive services that can set them on a path toward success in adulthood. As the principal contacts for homeless children and youth, homeless liaisons are uniquely positioned to improve the circumstances of these young people. Texas lawmakers should take advantage of this opportunity by limited the amount of competing responsibilities taken on by homeless liaisons, perhaps by setting aside specific funding for this crucial position. Policymakers should also consider the charge of educating homeless young people a holistic endeavor by investing in strategies that strengthen, expand, and support housing and other critical services.
As the state budget shrinks, the legislature ought to exercise prudence by allocating money wisely. Investing in young Texans is an investment in the future. It’s a sure bet.
Edited by: John Garrett Clawson