Talk to youth before making a program for them.

by Tim Grivois, Ed.D.

I live in Tucson, AZ, a city in Pima County. One of the groups I work with is called Tucson Pima Collaboration to End homelessness (TPCH), a coalition working to end youth homelessness in Pima County.

What makes this project unique is that youth lead this initiative through a group called the Youth Advisory Committee (YAC). YAC is made up of youth who, at some point in their lives, have not had a permanent place to live. Because their lived experience is precisely what TPCH wants to prevent, having youth at the center of the project is essential.

My work is to support adults older than the youth on YAC in thinking through action steps to support youth who experience unstable housing. Recently, my work with youth uncovered a gap between youth and school that surprised me:

“I had no idea that being homeless meant that I could get free school lunch.”

“No one told me that there were programs that were for homeless students until someone found out I’d been living with my cousin and their friends for two years.”

“I really wish I’d know that McKinney-Vento was a thing….Like, I knew how to try out for the football team or join chess club because everyone found out about it at a big assembly, but McKinney-Vento was a big secret.”

-Youth living in Pima County

McKinney Vento is a federal law requiring schools to provide a number of supports to students experiencing housing instability. Adults registering children and youth for school might see a questionnaire in a registration packet, and schools typically post information about McKinney Vento in the office. However, according to the youth most in need of support, no one ever really tells them directly about McKinney Vento.

When I ask youth what they think school adults like me should do about it, they say:

“Just have the person in charge of McKinney-Vento introduce themselves, explain what they do and who they’re for, and explain how to find them if someone needs them.”

“Maybe all you need to do is let students know what McKinney -Vento is. Maybe some kids won’t do anything, but I know I would.”

“Like, I don’t think you need a big sign or anything. Just make sure everyone knows.”

-Youth Living in Pima County

Right now, one of the main interventions that my group is planning on implementing this year is to make sure that high school students know who the McKinney-Vento Liaison is, what they do, and how to find them if someone needs them. This intervention will cost no more than a little time and will likely lead to greater access to support for young people who lack a permanent place to live. And, the idea came from the people we wanted these programs to serve.

If your school does something to make sure that all students know how to access McKinney-Vento Supports (and telling adults doesn’t count, according to youth), I’d be grateful to hear what you do and what the results have been. Leave a reply below or send me an email.

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