Partnering with Black Community Based Organizations to Address Student Homelessness

About the Author

Earl Edwards has over 15 years of professional experience in youth development and curriculum design. As a school administrator and classroom teacher, Earl has designed and facilitated district-wide professional development modules covering data analysis, formative assessments, and effective teaching strategies for students with learning disabilities. Earl also co-authored graduate course curriculums focusing on educational leadership development in urban public schools for Columbia University Teachers College principal certification program. In addition to his expertise in curriculum development, Earl has founded and contributed to several youth development programs that support Black and Latino males across the country. Earl is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of California Los Angeles Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. His current research focuses on how American public institutions can better support vulnerable student populations.
— Earl Edwards

Today, over 1.4 million students are identified as experiencing homelessness and a disproportionate number of those youth are Black. Data from the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior survey show that although Black students comprise just 13% of the overall high school population, they represent 20% of high school students experiencing homelessness.  According to Chapin Hall’s national youth count, Black youth are 83% more likely to experience homelessness than youth of any other racial group. Such trends are evident, for example, in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). In CPS, 26% of Black students experience homelessness, while only four percent of Hispanic students and two percent of white students in the district experience homelessness. Furthermore, the numbers do not reflect the millions of families facing eviction due to the pandemic, so it is certain that even more Black youth are experiencing homelessness but have not yet been identified. While schools and school districts are not best positioned to directly house families impacted by homelessness, the American Rescue Plan Homeless Children and Youth (ARP HCY) resources can play a significant role in supporting Black students and families affected by homelessness and housing insecurity.

As a researcher, I have spent the past six years analyzing the intersections of youth homelessness and racial inequity and have found that for several reasons, many Black youth are not disclosing their homelessness status, and attempts to identify and support them continue to fall short. As such, a new approach is necessary—ARP HCY funds should be used to bolster the capacity of Black community-based organizations (CBO) that serve historically disadvantaged communities. Black CBOs, in particular, are underutilized resources for helping Black youth thrive academically, socially, and emotionally, especially those experiencing homelessness. The following are recommendations that homeless liaisons, principals, and district leaders should consider when utilizing the ARP HCY funding.

How Schools’ Institutional Networks Limit the Identification of Black Students Experiencing Homelessness

Schools and school districts are only as strong as their formal and informal community network. Strong school networks that address the needs of students experiencing homelessness are typically composed of parent volunteers, private donors, local businesses, community-based organizations, medical centers, libraries, local police department, department of social services, department of child protective services. Schools and districts utilize this network to provide a broad scope of services for students experiencing homelessness. Unfortunately, Black community-based organizations are rarely (if ever) included in many school and school districts’ support networks, thereby limiting access to support for Black students experiencing homelessness. Worse, the institutional networks often designed to help students (i.e school resource officers, referrals to social services) disproportionately criminalize Black youth. 

Schools have deep institutional ties with the criminal justice system and child protective services. Black youth are disproportionately arrested at school, and some school personnel have weaponized child protective services against Black families. My research shows that Black students experiencing homelessness may distrust their school staff due to their school’s close affiliation with these institutions and thus do not disclose their homeless status. Black youth’s lack of disclosure prevents them from receiving the resources necessary to access a high-quality education. 

Although Black students experiencing homelessness are not disclosing their housing status to school staff, they often share this information with staff at community-based organizations and youth development programs. Unfortunately, given a lack of connection between the Black CBO and school, the disclosure never reaches school district homeless liaisons. Consequently, many Black youth are never formally identified by the district, and their access to available resources are limited.

The Positive Impact of Black Community Based Organizations

Many Black CBOs are embedded in their communities, and they tend to be the first line of defense for supporting Black youth and their families when faced with housing insecurity. As a former program director for a volunteer college readiness and mentoring program for Black boys in South Central, Los Angeles, I disclosed to my mentees that I experienced homelessness as a teenager. Later, ten out of fifteen youth in the program shared that they had experienced or were currently experiencing homelessness as well. Unfortunately, neither my mentees nor their parents disclosed their housing status to their school, and they missed out on the resources and support their school could have provided. I encouraged my mentees and their guardians who were currently homeless to disclose; however, they declined because they feared that school would “make things worse.”

My organization supported our mentees in navigating housing and educational resources while experiencing and/or recovering from homelessness, but our capacity was limited. We didn’t know any of their school teachers, had no contact with school leadership, we didn’t know how to establish a partnership or if it would be welcomed, and our funds were limited. Ultimately, all our mentees graduated high school with scholarships to attend college. However, our work as an organization was much harder than it needed to be because we were isolated from their school community.

After interviewing several Black CBOs, I found that my organization’s experience of overextending resources to help youth experiencing housing insecurity was fairly common. I found that Black youth development programs, churches, and mentoring programs often used limited discretionary dollars to pay for hotel vouchers, bus passes, and gift cards to grocery stores to meet the needs of the youth they serve. While these organizations had a significant impact on the youth and families they were serving, the overextension of their resources limited their capacity to serve more youth and compete for larger grants.

School districts should allocate ARP funds to identifying Black community-based organizations within historically disadvantaged communities and establishing formal partnerships with the organizations. The partnership could include having the district liaison train CBO staff on the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act and provide the organization with funding to bolster its programming capacity to better support the needs of students impacted by homelessness. Additionally, districts and schools could establish a referral system with the Black CBO to ensure all Black students experiencing homelessness are connected to CBOs that provide social, emotional, and college readiness support beyond the school day.

Questions for districts to consider:

  1. Does your district currently partner with Black CBOs to serve students experiencing homelessness? If not, how might you identify and connect with potential partners?
  2. Are there procedural or policy barriers within your district that make it difficult to partner with Black CBOs? If so, what policy or procedural changes need to occur to mitigate such hurdles?
  3. Where are there opportunities to invite Black CBOs to partner with your district (i.e. back-to-school nights, afterschool programs, training and professional development, etc).
  4. How is your district planning to use ARP-HCY funds to strengthen connections with Black CBOs (i.e. direct contracts, greater staff capacity to build relationships, joint grant opportunities, etc).