By: Katie Davis, TCP Attorney
CFCC’s Truancy Court Program (TCP) has encountered unprecedented numbers of families in Baltimore City who are struggling with unstable housing and homelessness. While there are many challenges for those dealing with homelessness, most families do not realize that they are eligible for certain public benefits, including federally-mandated services for their children, based upon their housing situation. Under the McKinney-Vento Act, 42 U.S.C. 1143, children and youth are considered “homeless” if they lack a “fixed, adequate, regular nighttime residence.” This law has been interpreted to encompass far more than living on the street or in shelters. It also applies to families who are sharing housing with others, moving from house to house, or living in a motel or hotel due to loss of housing or economic hardship. It also includes children who are awaiting foster care placement. In order to ensure that these students have “equal access to the same free, appropriate public education” as other students, federal law mandates that school districts provide certain services, such as transportation to and from school, fee waivers, assistance with school registration, free lunch, free school supplies, and uniform vouchers.
For many students, these benefits make the difference between regular school attendance and truancy. For example, this Fall, the TCP team worked with a single mother of two young children who lost her housing and moved in temporarily with an aunt in another part of the city. Her children’s attendance was suffering because of the distance between their temporary home and their schools. The mother was spending over $3.50 each day for the four-hour journey to take her children by bus to and from two different schools.
When the mother told the TCP team about her situation, she did not use the word “homeless” to describe her problems. The TCP Attorney determined that she was, in fact, “homeless” under the McKinney-Vento Act and advocated for her children to get the free transportation to which they were entitled. Now, a taxi brings one child to and from school every day, and a yellow school bus takes the other child. In addition, the TCP Attorney intervened on the mother’s behalf with the Baltimore City Public Schools Office of Enrollment and Transfers to find out about enrolling the children in a school that was closer to her temporary residence. The TCP Attorney also explained to the mother how she could obtain a fee waiver for a field trip and have access to other services to which her children are entitled. These services will remain with the children for the duration of the school year, even if the family is able to find secure housing in the meantime. The TCP team will continue to monitor and support this family and others like them to ensure that they can make use of their federally-mandated services in order to maintain some stability for their children in school as they contend with the challenges of finding a stable home.