What 'Back To School' Means For Milwaukee's Homeless Students

Aug 29, 2016

The first day of school is just around the corner, and for Milwaukee students who are homeless, that can mean a return of some stability after the summer break.

Staff is hard at work this week identifying the kids who don’t have an address, and making sure they have transportation, meals and school supplies -- all things the district can help with, and that will hopefully keep them in school.

Step 1: Identify Students in Need

For Cathy Klein, "back-to-school" preparations are all about her “list.”

As homeless coordinator for the Milwaukee Public Schools district, Klein oversees the Homeless Education programming, or HEP, for all 150 MPS schools. Last year, more than 4,000 MPS students were identified as homeless. Klein had 239 students enrolled in the program by late August – and she expects that list to grow to nearly 1,000 by September.


“I don’t think any other school district in Wisconsin can say they had 4,000 homeless students this school year,” Klein says. “We go out of our way to make sure that, in any way we can help families, that we do.”

Right now, as summer comes to an end, Klein spends a lot of time at her desk, making phone calls and sending emails – trying to locate kids with no forwarding address.

“I make sure that students who are experiencing homelessness get identified, and then get the services that they are entitled to,” Klein says.

Step 2: Connect Students to Services

A federal law called the McKinney-Vento Act mandates services.

Once students in need are identified and enrolled for assistance, they’re eligible for free daily meals and bus rides. MPS gets federal funds to transport students even if they move outside the district’s busing region – sometimes, as far away as Racine or Waukesha County.

Providing free school supplies is also a must. MPS’ central office houses a stockpile of pre-packaged backpacks complete with notebooks, pens and pencils. Often, students can also get supplies from their individual schools or social workers – those tend to be covered by school budget money.

Schools can even waive certain fees for homeless kids, such as field trip costs and graduation charges. 

That’s why Klein’s list is so important: the more kids she can identify early on, the better she’ll be able to track their needs throughout the year.

But first, she has to know where to find them.

"We all historically have had this image in our minds of what a homeless person looks like, and it's a very old image."

McKinney-Vento helps with this, too. It gives Klein and others like her a definition of the word “homeless” to work from. Anybody who has lost housing due to a hardship and is temporarily living somewhere else – whether that’s being doubled up with friends or family, living in a shelter, or even living on the street, in cars, in parks or abandoned buildings – qualifies.

This also includes any child left whose parent is no longer in the picture, or teenagers who have run away from home.

All school staff within MPS are trained to identify signs of homelessness. The district also has close relationships with local shelters, which let Klein and her colleagues know when a district family uses their services.

LISTEN: Formerly Homeless Students in Milwaukee Share Their Stories

One of the most active partners is Pathfinders. The Milwaukee-based organization operates programs and shelters for homeless and runaway youth – many of whom they help enroll in local schools.

Katie Hamm, Pathfinders’ vice president of homeless services, says schools might never know who’s in need, because the stigma of being homeless keeps some families and kids from self-identifying.

“We all historically have had this image in our minds of what a homeless person looks like, and it’s a very old image,” Hamm explains. “They go to school and they are clean and put together.”

“I actually remember a young person who had figured out that if he carried a set of keys and kind of jangled the keys that no one ever would question that he didn’t have a place to go, because those keys meant that he belonged somewhere,” Hamm recounts.

Credit Rachel Morello/Created on infogr.am

This, Cathy Klein says, is why she chooses to describe her charges as kids “experiencing homelessness.”

“We do like to think of kids not as ‘homeless students,’ but as students first,” Klein says. “People aren’t homeless because they’re addicted to drugs, or because they are gambling away their money. Certainly there are some people that fall into that category. But the vast majority of people I talk to are homeless because of things that they had no control over. And now they find themselves in a situation that they’re struggling with.”

Step 3: Follow Through

Samantha Mewes does a lot of the same work as Klein at her own school. Mewes works as director of counseling at Milwaukee Collegiate Academy, a city charter school.

"Here's the thing: you could go a whole year, and somebody might not have any idea the situation of a particular student."

Mewes guesses that out of 300 MCA students, 15 fall under the category of “homeless.” But, she says, the number constantly changes, because there are always students who need to find a new place to stay.

She says some have conflict within the family, or have experienced trauma, so they run away and hop from place to place.

It’s her job to keep up, to know when a house burns down or so-and-so’s mom kicked him out.

But kids don’t always tell her. She often finds out through the grapevine, or on social media.

“If they have a cell phone, it’s a phone call or a text message. If they have access to Wi-Fi and they have an email, sometimes it’s that Gmail chat. Sometimes it’s the inboxing on Facebook, all the different social media websites now,” Mewes lists. “I’m getting into the Snapchat, trying to figure out that.”

“And here’s the thing: you could go a whole year, and somebody might not have any idea the situation of a particular student,” she adds.

Mewes says there is no one way to keep up, because there isn’t a “template” for homelessness.

Lucky for MPS’ Cathy Klein, most young students do share their housing situation -- usually, when parents enroll them and don’t have an address to list.

But high school students are a bit trickier. Often times, they’re on their own, and whenever the teens move, there’s a good chance they’ll stop coming to school.

“What worries me is when they lose families,” Klein says. “Sometimes they come here and enroll, and then they never show up at the school. Sometimes we just don’t know what happens to them. And that’s hard.”

The kind of tracking people like Klein do will continue all year. And their doors remain open throughout the year, to help students and families feel comfortable coming in, sharing their story and registering for services as housing situations change.