Stable Homes, Stable Schools: The Imperative of Doing Things Differently

Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) identifies around 2,500 students who are experiencing homelessness every year. Minneapolis sits in Hennepin County, Minnesota, which has a strong homeless response system for families and a high number of emergency shelter beds compared to other counties both locally and nationally. Hennepin County is also one of very few places in the United States that has a right-to-shelter policy for families, meaning that eligible families with children have a right to shelter. While we have a strong shelter response system, the availability of affordable, supportive housing options does not come anywhere close to meeting the need. In 2017, our school district embarked on a housing initiative designed to fill some of this gap with a focus on school and housing stability for our students.

Number of Students Identified as Experiencing Homelessness Yearly in Minneapolis Public Schools

Stable Homes Stable Schools (SHSS) is a partnership with the City of Minneapolis, the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA), Hennepin County Health and Human Services, the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities, and Minneapolis Public Schools. The initiative supports 18 schools with the highest rates of homelessness and provides access to ongoing rental assistance or one-time emergency assistance and wrap around services. Families who are currently homeless, as defined by the education subtitle of the McKinney-Vento Act, receive up to 3 years of rental assistance and support designed to move the family toward self-sufficiency and school success. Families who are facing eviction, or at risk of becoming homeless, receive one-time emergency funds and wrap-around support as needed.

Stable Homes Stable Schools is a great example of how a partnership with community organizations, government entities and the school district can work together to prioritize those most in need of housing support. Our roles are clearly defined and draw upon the expertise that we have in providing support to those experiencing homelessness. The collaboration and connection to services has been critical to the stability we’ve seen thus far.

Roles of partners:

“One critical and unique aspect of this housing initiative is that it focuses on the children in the family to prioritize those most in need and to measure success. Very rarely do we see this focus in the prioritization within our homeless response systems. The lack of focus on children’s needs is short-sighted when we know that homelessness is often generational, and therefore, we will not end homelessness without paying close attention to the needs of children in our community.”

One critical and unique aspect of this housing initiative is that it focuses on the children in the family to prioritize those most in need and to measure success. Very rarely do we see this focus in the prioritization within our homeless response systems. The lack of focus on children’s needs is short-sighted when we know that homelessness is often generational, and therefore, we will not end homelessness without paying close attention to the needs of children in our community.

Our school social workers identify families experiencing homelessness and prioritize those families for referral based on the students’ needs. For example, when we see a pattern of low attendance, behavior concerns, low proficiency in reading/math, or a lack of ability for the parent to engage with school, we prioritize that family for housing support. We then partner with the YMCA and the Housing Authority to help the family locate affordable housing within the bus zone of their school and provide ongoing, wrap-around support for long-term stability.

We also prioritize those who are unlikely to be able to access housing support through our County’s Coordinated Entry System. Over half of the 2,500 students in Minneapolis Public Schools who experienced homelessness last year were not homeless under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD’s) definition. These students were living in self-pay motels or unsafely doubled-up, which are not included in HUD’s definition of homelessness, and therefore not included in the affordable, supportive housing options offered through our Coordinated Entry System. These students, with little to no affordable housing options, often end up remaining homeless for months and sometimes years. We regularly connect with families who are crammed into small rental units with other people. Parents have little to no control over what happens in the home and no legal right to be living there. These situations range from tenuous and stressful at best, to outright dangerous for the children. These families, who are not homeless by HUD’s definition, and others who are unlikely to receive support through our County’s Coordinated Entry system, are prioritized for our SHSS initiative.

“At a time when home has become an even stronger symbol of safety amidst a pandemic, we have to do things differently.”

Our initial outcomes from this project are very promising. School stability, which we know is critical to strong education outcomes, was higher for families receiving ongoing rent support and wrap-around services than our district average. To put this in perspective, last year our district average for students who remained in the same school all year was 86%. That average for students experiencing homelessness was 65%, but for families enrolled in SHSS, 90% of those students remained in their same school. We’ve been able to take families, many of whom have been chronically homeless (inclusive of the education definition of homelessness), and truly stabilize them – in their home and academically.

The eviction prevention funds have enabled us to support families to remain in their homes or locate more affordable housing. In the first year and a half of this initiative, we were able to provide assistance to around 250 families, including 700 children. What was unique about this partnership was that the eviction prevention support came through their school, and was tied to school stability, in addition to housing stability. Not only did this prevent homelessness, but it strengthened the families’ connection to school, and gave us another tool to stabilize families in our school communities.

SHSS has been very successful at stabilizing students, but it needs to be replicated dramatically to meet the needs. At capacity, it will serve 300 families in 18 schools with the highest rates of homelessness. While this is significant in size, it will only reach 25% of our McKinney-Vento eligible families in those schools.

It is more important than ever that we take an urgent, comprehensive look at our housing and homeless response system, and that we do this in a way that captures the strengths and needs of our youngest community members. At a time when home has become an even stronger symbol of safety amidst a pandemic, we have to do things differently.

This blog is written by Charlotte Kinzley.

Charlotte Kinzley

Charlotte Kinzley

McKinney-Vento Liaison

Charlotte Kinzley is the McKinney-Vento liaison for Minneapolis Public Schools where she supports students and families experiencing homelessness. Over the past 20 years, she has developed programming and initiatives in family shelters and supportive housing facilities in Minneapolis. Her focus in this work has been to support the development of young people and to advocate for the importance of stable housing for all families. She currently serves as co-chair of the Hennepin County Family Coordinated Entry Leadership Committee and is a member of the Operations Board for Hennepin County’s Continuum of Care.