Part 2: Ensuring Mental Health Services for Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness
In the wake of the pandemic – and in the midst of the current housing, addiction, and mental health crises – schools and communities face unprecedented challenges. While often hidden, homelessness among children and youth is a significant factor contributing to declines in school enrollment, chronic absence, and student mental health struggles.
American Rescue Plan — Homeless Children and Youth, or ARP-HCY funds, are one-time funds that can help meet this moment. ARP-HCY funds are uniquely flexible funds to support the identification, enrollment, and school participation of children and youth experiencing homelessness. Part two of our mental health series focuses on the specific examples of how districts are using these funds to support the mental health needs of students, and provides general strategies for identifying and reaching children and youth experiencing homelessness.
- Middletown Public Schools in Rhode Island are providing mental health services in school buildings during school hours, in partnership with the community-based organization Newport Mental Health.
- In Marion County Schools, Alabama, the mental health coordinator partners closely with the homeless liaison to ensure students experiencing homelessness have access to the mental health support provided to all students.
- In Durham, North Carolina, unaccompanied youth will have access to two years of mental health support through the district.
- Ridgefield School District in Washington state purchased Camp Cope-A-Lot, an online curriculum, to support mental health, stress and anxiety.
- Kenai Peninsula Borough School District in Alaska is contracting with a local agency to provide private mental health services to students experiencing homelessness
- Prince George’s County Schools in Maryland is using funds to support a mental health program that provides homework support and small group counseling twice a week for two and a half hours for elementary-aged students staying in shelters.
- Taos Public Schools in New Mexico is using funds to support partnerships for mental health and case management services with local universities, providing supervision and stipends to graduate students to provide these services.
- Shakopee School District in Minnesota is providing bilingual mental health services to immigrant youth experiencing homelessness. The groups addressed the trauma of their immigration experience, offered support for self-care, and provided space to manage and work through trauma.
- Clifton Public Schools in New Jersey hired a part-time mental health clinician who specifically supports students experiencing homelessness. The clinician meets with students once a week during the school day.
- Include school district homeless liaisons, designated under the McKinney-Vento Act, as a priority source of referrals to early identification and intervention programs and school based mental health and wrap-around services.
- Ensure that basic needs are met, so that students can attend to their mental health. Children and youth experiencing homelessness may need help accessing food on the weekend or evenings, basic hygiene, and clothing. American Rescue Plan – Homeless Children and Youth funds may be used for store cards and in other ways to support basic needs.
- Provide flexible options to meet the mental health needs of highly mobile students, for example:
- On-site mental health providers that can take walk-ins during the day, so students can fulfill other obligations after school
- Mobile mental health services to rural areas to remove transportation barriers
- Virtual mental health options with the technology to access virtual services
- Address issues of parental consent for youth who are homeless but not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian (unaccompanied youth).
- Use American Rescue Plan, Title IV-A, and other funds to increase access to mental health services for students experiencing homelessness. For example, youth experiencing homelessness often struggle to maintain functioning cell phones and cell phone plans, and may not be able to access suicide hotlines that provide support and save lives.
- Normalize mental health.Talk about mental health openly and often. Youth noted that “destigmatizing depression, anxiety, and mental illness, in general, would be a big step in the right direction. Nurses and counselors could visit classrooms and discuss the commonality of things like this.
- Increase awareness of existing counseling services and mental health supports. Many students may not be aware that schools have counselors they can speak with in confidence. If they are aware, they might not feel comfortable in their ability to access those programs and services. For example, only 48% of African American students reported feeling like they were able to reach out to a teacher about mental health concerns, compared to 57% of white students.
- Invest in staffing. Schools need to “have enough staff that students are able to make personal connections, and to help foster informal check-ins.” It takes time for McKinney-Vento homeless liaisons, school counselors, social workers, teachers, nurses, and others to build trust with students. Such investments in students’ emotional health must be valued and prioritized. Schools and districts can use the American Rescue Plan Homeless Children and Youth funds to hire more counselors and social workers and/or add hours specifically to work with students experiencing homelessness.
- In addition to providing staff and resources to ensure student mental health needs are met, schools should offer support that acknowledges that students of color disproportionately encounter stress and mental health needs. Hire staff and counselors of color who can empathize with student needs, and know that not all students of color have the same mental health needs. Several schools and districts have implemented “grow-your-own” programs to recruit former students to work in schools as educators and counselors.
- Increase school-based mental health supports and services. Offer school phones in private locations for students to call suicide hotlines whenever needed. Youth experiencing homelessness often struggle to maintain functioning cell phones and cell phone plans, yet suicide hotlines provide support and a listening ear that literally save lives. Create school-based peer educational training programs to inform young people about depression and suicidality and to support students experiencing these risk behaviors.
- Respect youth autonomy. A consensus among youth surveyed was to “let students know what resources are available to them. Be clear about the procedure followed when students disclose [suicidal thoughts] so they can make an informed choice about disclosure—don’t force interventions that students don’t want, [and] let them know what they need to do to avoid them. [Not] allowing students to safely disclose suicidal feelings is more dangerous than allowing someone to leave after disclosing.”
- Review all school policies to ensure they are trauma-informed. It’s paramount to specifically consider the trauma and needs of students experiencing homelessness.