Until she went to college at Texas State University, Irene had been chronically homeless since she was 5 years old. It wasn’t until she was 10, when she and her mother stayed at a homeless shelter, that she started to understand what being homeless meant, Irene said.

“I personally didn’t really come out about my homelessness until applying for [college] scholarships,” she said.

Irene and her mother spent most nights couch surfing with friends or family. They stayed at a shelter for a combined year and a half and were able to find temporary, transitional housing once in a while.

“It was just normal to me,” she said. Her mother always made sure she was well-fed and wore clean clothes to school. “[Friends and teachers] never asked and I never told.”

Irene, who had asked that her last name not be used, spoke Thursday to more than two dozen education advocates and homelessness liaisons from across South Texas who gathered at the Education Service Center Region 20 complex to share and learn strategies aimed at keeping homeless students off the streets and in school.

SchoolHouse Connection, a national nonprofit working to overcome homelessness through education, organized the meeting, which hosted administrators from small-town school districts such as Poteet Independent School District to large public charter school operations such as KIPP. Most in attendance were designated liaisons from districts or schools in charge of programming for homeless students and ensuring compliance with the McKinney-Vento Act.

The 1987 legislation provides federal money for homelessness shelter programs and requires every local educational agency to designate a liaison to ensure that homeless students – defined as any individual who lacks a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” – has a full and equal opportunity to succeed in school.

More than 1.5 million students enrolled in U.S. schools said they experienced homelessness during the last three school years, according to recent federal data released by the National Center for Homeless Education.

You don’t have to be living on the street to be considered homeless or qualify for programs provided under the McKinney-Vento Act, said Patricia Julianelle, director of program advancement for SchoolHouse Connection. “Sometimes a student may not realize they are homeless or identify themselves as homeless.”

Sharing accommodations with other families or students, staying at hotels, or sleeping in any public space qualifies students under the McKinney-Vento Act.

Identifying a school’s homeless population is the first challenge in fighting the problem, Julianelle said, so it’s important to ask the right questions when a child or parent is registering to attend school.

Instead of asking “are you homeless?” a registrar should be asking about consistency in address, whether their utilities have been shut off, or if they’ve been evicted or threatened with eviction, said Cate Moses, the homeless education liaison for Monte del Sol Charter School in New Mexico. “Don’t use the word homeless … nobody really wants to identify that way.”

Moses calls families with housing difficulties “families in transition” instead.

Simply changing the name of the “residency questionnaire” required by schools could help, as “residency” questions – especially in communities with a large immigrant population – could reduce the level of response, she said. Her school has changed the name of that document to “student housing questionnaire.”

Jaime Fountain, the special education implementation coordinator for KIPP San Antonio, said the biggest barrier to providing better transportation and education services for homeless students is funding.

Getting these students to graduate makes them more employable and gives them an opportunity to break the cycle of homelessness and poverty, Fountain said.

Students who experience homelessness have an 87 percent likelihood of dropping out of school, according to the National Center for Homeless Education’s report.

“[Funding for these programs] is not a handout,” Fountain said, it’s getting homeless students closer to a level playing field. “Their parents likely didn’t ask [to be homeless], and the kids certainly didn’t.”

She’ll be taking several ideas from Thursday’s workshop back to work with her, she said, including the “student housing questionnaire” name change and the idea of “compassionate curiosity” when it comes to identifying homeless students.

Irene and her mother had been chronically homeless since Irene was 5 years old, staying on the couches of family and friends for the most part. Credit: Iris Dimmick / Rivard Report

“For some people, it’s hard and embarrassing to ask for help,” said Irene, who graduated from Texas State University with a bachelor’s degree in social work in 2016.

She came across a scholarship program, now facilitated by SchoolHouse Connection, while attending Jefferson High School. When she met fellow applicants, who also were homeless, she felt an instant connection.

“It’s three days of intense bonding and the realization that you’re not alone,” Irene said of her trip to the national award ceremony. The scholarship provides funding in addition to financial and professional training as well as mental health advocacy and referrals.

At 26, Irene is now working part time at an H-E-B grocery store and a local coffee shop, and she drives for Lyft on the side. She lives with her boyfriend in the Northwest Side of San Antonio.

One of the most important things an educator or administrator can do for a homeless student is “be in a good mood,” she told the group. “Going to school is our only stability. … When you’re happy, we want to see you more and tell you more. We want to make you proud. Sometimes you’re the only happy face we see.”

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...