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Local Groups Work To Tackle Student Homelessness, Eviction Starting In School

drawing of boy standing under streetlight
Efforts are underway to create a citywide eviction diversion program, and connect families to it through Richmond Public Schools. Abbey Miller/WCVE News

Around 20,000 students in Virginia are homeless, and more than 3,000 are in the greater Richmond area, according to 2017 state data.

In our ongoing housing series Where We Live, WCVE’s Megan Pauly reports on the role schools are playing when it comes to helping kids and their families.


When you think of homelessness, you might imagine someone  sleeping on a park bench, under a bridge… or perhaps in a homeless shelter.

But the definition for homelessness in the public school system is much broader than that. It includes youth who double up with aunts and uncles or grandmas and grandpas; those who live in hotels or couch surf with friends. Pat Popp is Virginia’s state coordinator of student homeless services.

Popp: Part of our rationale for that is recognizing we want the best safety net under who we consider our most vulnerable population and that's our young children and children in school.

Eviction rates for Richmond Elementary School neighborhoods (Kathryn Howell, VCU)

Under the 1987 McKinney-Vento Act, every school district is required to have at least one part-time person working with homeless students. Richmond Public Schools has three full-time staff members. However, two work behind the scenes on transportation and grants, and only one - the social worker - works directly with the approximately 1,400 homeless students.

Popp says it’s their job to identify homelessness and connect youth to resources.

Popp: It is by making sure that all the staff, including school social workers and teachers and even bus drivers are familiar with what we mean when we say homeless.

There’s no federal requirement to track the causes of youth homelessness. Districts like Richmond Public Schools do keep mobility data, tracking when students are entering and leaving the  district in the middle of the school year.

Brian Koziol with Housing Opportunities Made Equal requested that data - which shows that on average, 1 in 3 elementary students are moving during the year.

Koziol: We know and have known that housing instability is really what's driving inequity in educational outcomes and performance.

Kathryn Howell with VCU. (Photo M. Pauly)

Koziol says the figures are a bit inflated, since they include those students who simply enroll late or just move, and aren’t necessarily unstably housed. But, he says, there is a correlation between changing schools and eviction. A number of studies and surveys have also found a strong link between homelessness and eviction.

Kathryn Howell with VCU’s Wilder School mapped out eviction rates for Richmond’s elementary schools.

Howell: Kids are getting pulled in and out of school.

According to her figures, 8 out of 10 elementary students live in neighborhoods with eviction rates over 10%. Four schools - Barack Obama, Overby-Sheppard, Woodville and Oak Grove Elementary - have rates of 20% or higher. But Howell says it doesn’t have to be that way.

Howell: With education, we’ve gotta start thinking about: is this maybe an opportunity – a space - where we can really intervene? Because teachers see these kids on the front lines. The guidance counselors see these kids on the front lines.

Red areas show eviction rates of 20% or higher. (Kathryn Howell, VCU)

There are efforts underway to intervene. Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME) has applied for a grant to fund an additional social worker for RPS.

That person would refer families facing eviction to a diversion program in the works with the city and Central Virginia Legal Aid Society. It would provide pro bono legal aid, and temporary rental assistance. HOME has asked the city for $300,000 to fund rental assistance for the first year.

Some other districts in Virginia are also taking steps to address eviction. Roanoke Public Schools raised more than $20,000 over the last few years to help provide temporary rental assistance for families facing eviction – and have even helped with rental deposits. A group of students also started raising money for their peers through local fundraisers, like a breakfast with Santa event in early December. Homeless Student Program Coordinator Malora Horn says to date, they’ve helped about 150 families and 300 students.

Right now, youth without stable housing have limited options. There are only three youth shelters in the state, and none in the greater Richmond area. Some find shelter through rapid-rehousing, but there still aren’t enough services to meet students’ needs.

Next week, I’ll explore a Richmond program taking a unique approach to addressing youth homelessness and eviction.

For Learning Curve, I’m Megan Pauly, WCVE News.