What constitutes "homeless" in Nebraska schools?

The problems surrounding homelessness in schools vary by district. (Photo by Ben Bohall, NET News))
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February 9, 2016 - 6:45am

Being identified as a "homeless" student in Nebraska can mean a variety of different experiences and challenges.


One of the hardest parts about Bryan Seck’s job, is trying to change the mental image most of us have when we hear the word “homeless.”

“If there’s an older gentleman on the street and he’s holding up a cardboard sign, that’s who you see and who you think of,” Seck says.

Seck is the homeless outreach specialist for Lincoln Public Schools. But that’s not to say the students and families he works with are actually out on the street.

“Family homelessness is not folks on the street. Family homelessness is working class people and something bad has happened to them and they don’t have savings. The number one cause of family homelessness of L.P.S. families is domestic violence. When you have a domestic violence situation, there are horrible consequences for the family," Seck said.

Those consequences can include staying with relatives or friends, and other unstable living arrangements. And that can have a negative impact on a student’s welfare in the classroom. For the past two years, Seck has worked with nearly 900 students and their families, doing things like helping them find steady housing and employment.

“Many times, families simply walk up to the front desk in an elementary school and say, ‘I’m becoming homeless, I’m not making rent, can you help me? This happens almost daily,” Seck said.

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act was authorized in 1987 to deal with the education of children and youth in those circumstances. As a result, school districts across Nebraska are required to each have a homeless outreach specialist on staff. While the responsibilities of the position are similar, the scenarios can be very different district to district.

That’s evident nearly 200 miles away in Lexington, Nebraska.

In her small office at Lexington High School, homeless outreach specialist and social worker Kristi O’Meara is filling out vouchers donated by local grocery stores for students in similar situations in Lexington. Lexington has the second highest homeless student population in Nebraska – only Omaha has more homeless students. 

One of those homeless students in Lexington is Hector Aguilar-Pablo. Hector has been at Lexington Public Schools for the past 18 months. After fleeing Guatemala, he was apprehended after his mother sent him to cross the border by himself between Mexico and the United States. He spoke with us through an interpreter.

“They had me for two months and they asked me what I was doing here, and I told them I came here to make a better life for myself and my mother,” Aguilar-Pablo said.


Lexington has the second highest homeless student population in Nebraska – only Omaha has more homeless students. (Photo by Ben Bohall, NET News)
 

Hector was sent to live with his relatives in Lexington. But it soon proved to be an unstable environment for Hector who had to learn to fend for himself.

“When I first started coming here, I had to focus mainly on income... I was facing some challenges that made it difficult for me to come to school and provide for myself,” Aguilar-Pablo said.

O’Meara says Hector’s story is a pretty common one in Lexington’s school district.

 ““We have a lot of unaccompanied youth in Lexington," O'Meara said. "We have a lot of kids who have come up from like Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico… They’re coming into the United States, being stopped by immigration and then they locate a relative or someone in the United States who will take that youth and live with them and provide for them.”

O’Meara says nearly 632 students in Lexington’s school district for the 2014-2015 school year were identified as “homeless.” They include students whose parents have been deported, are doubling up with other families, or living in sub-standard housing.

As O’Meara puts it, any environment that makes it difficult for a student to focus in the classroom.

“To come to school and try to study and try to learn- it’s difficult,” O'Meara said.

While the issues and resources may vary between school districts, the sentiment is the same. At the L.P.S district office in Lincoln, Bryan Seck is giving a presentation on his work with a focus on the notion of stability. In it, he’s stressing longevity and follow through with the families and students he and other outreach specialists have worked with.

“The secret sauce to ending homelessness is follow-up... The power of advocacy is not doing something for somebody, it’s following up to see if actions were taken,” Seck said.

Editor's Note: Listen for NET News Signature Stories on homelessness in Nebraska Tuesdays through March 1 at 6:45 a.m., 8:45 a.m. and 4;45 p.m. CT on NET Radio. Watch our "Educating the Homeless in Nebraska" discussion program online any time.  Learn more about this topic and find resources on our "Homeless in Nebraska" web page.

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