Project LEARN (Lawyers Education Access Resource Network) is a cutting-edge initiative of the Law Center. It is designed to ensure children who are homeless have a stable school life by training lawyers across the country on homeless children’s rights and how to best advocate for them.
By Cara Vasquez, Associate, DLA Piper
Prior to working with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, I had always imagined homeless individuals as being financially drained, without jobs and certainly without cell phones. However, advocating for homeless students has opened my eyes to the variety of situations in which people are considered homeless.
A mother in Ohio contacted Project Learn about the looming disenrollment from school of her two daughters, and I immediately volunteered to help from my office in Houston. The short e-mail blurb on the family explained that they were doubled-up with another family member. The most intriguing part of this family’s story was that they did not fit within society’s traditional notion of “homeless.” The family had been in the process of buying a new home when their realtor recommended not renewing their apartment lease in anticipation of their home purchase. The purchase fell through, and the family was down and out. Unable to sign a new apartment lease due to financial difficulties, they moved in with the mother’s brother in another school district. When the school realized the family had moved, it demanded that the family either move back into the district or pay $600 a month for out-of-district tuition for her two daughters, otherwise the daughters’ enrollment would be terminated. The family did not have the financial means for either option and was certainly not in a position to take action within a week as demanded by the school.
The mother and father had been in contact with the school’s homeless liaison who repeatedly represented that, in her view, their daughters did not qualify under the McKinney-Vento Act because the family had not been evicted. With the pressing deadline, I called the homeless liaison multiple times a day for a total of nine phone calls, all to no avail; the school did not respond.
Desperate for a resolution, I reached out to Lisa Coleman at the National Law Center to ask for advice. She was a great resource and explained that homeless liaisons are often juggling many job duties in addition to their role as a homeless liaison. Lisa suggested contacting the State Coordinator for Ohio, Tom Dannis. State Coordinators are valuable assets for advocates, and their involvement is often enough to get the ball rolling. I explained to Mr. Dannis the family’s situation, and he promised he would call the school on their behalf. Sure enough, once Tom called, the school allowed the girls to finish out the school year!
Finally, I was finally able let the mother know that her daughters were permanent students at their school of origin. This phone call was a rewarding experience and made all of my attempts worthwhile. The National Law Center and State Coordinators are both tremendous resources in this process for lawyer advocates who have limited experience in this area.
As someone who ended up becoming homeless via court-order after taking care of a terminally, I know just how insensitive and ignorant the courts can be in regards to current realities in America.