Did you know that Lynchburg City Schools has a full-time position entitled “Homeless Education Liaison”? I didn’t either until I met Judy Brooks.

Earlier this year, we were paired together during the Point-in-Time Count done by the Central Virginia Continuum of Care. As we spent a few pre-dawn hours walking around downtown surveying Lynchburg’s homeless population, I learned that her full-time job was serving homeless or “displaced” students, ranging from pre-K to 12th grade. Her role as Homeless Education Liaison is mandated by the McKinney-Vento Act, a federal law designed to protect those students who lack a permanent fixed residence by ensuring enrollment and educational stability.

Through March 2019 of this school year, Lynchburg City Schools has 189 active students identified as homeless. As part of my column series about affordable housing in Lynchburg, I recently sat down with Judy for an interview to discuss her work and how affordable housing, housing insecurity, and homelessness are impacting children and families in our community.

How is homelessness defined? The McKinney-Vento definition of homeless includes children who may be in an emergency shelter, who may be street homeless, or who may be living in cars, parks, public places, and places not typically approved for habitation. Their definition also includes students who, due to economic hardship, are forced to live in a hotel or motel or be doubled up or sharing housing with friends or family members. They just lack a permanent fixed residence of their own. Most of our students that qualify for McKinney-Vento protection are, in large part, doubled up or sharing housing, so they’re not street homeless or in emergency shelter.

How are homeless students identified? My primary responsibility is to receive referrals of suspected homeless or displaced students. I have regular contact with shelter staff to identify students. A portion of my work is training our school bus drivers, attendance office staff, and school nurses because those are the three categories of people that are probably going to be the first ones to see the red flags.

What happens after a student is identified as homeless? First and foremost, I ask, “Where are you staying?” If they don’t have shelter, then my first contact or referral for them is to Homeless Intake located at the Lynchburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority. If they are housed, then my next contact is with the school to say, “FYI, this student is currently enrolled in your school. They’re living outside of the attendance zone. I will make a referral for transportation services.” For example, it might be a family that is zoned for Bedford Hills Elementary School, but they are currently at Salvation Army, which is zoned for RS Payne Elementary School. We will then have to coordinate a school bus to go to Salvation Army to transport that child to their school of origin daily, which is on the other side of town.

The next thing I will do is reach out to school nutrition services. Because they are McKinney-Vento eligible, the federal government guarantees that child is going to remain eligible for free breakfast and lunch through the remainder of the school year. We’ll ask the parents, “Do the children have the school supplies that they need?” If they don’t, I have a closet here where I keep school supplies, extra clothes, extra shoes, and extra underclothes, in addition to your typical backpacks, papers, pencils, and things like that.

What is the most common cause of student homelessness? A person displaced due to economic hardship, which usually means that the youth and their family have been evicted from their home due to non-payment of rent over the course of several months. Oftentimes, the children that we are seeing, it’s not the first time they’ve been in a displaced situation. It’s not the first time they’ve come home from school and found out that they have been evicted. That is very traumatic for our students, which is why we also try to provide as much wrap-around services as possible.

The parents are saying, “We just can’t find an affordable place to live.” If they do, they can only maintain it for a few months at a time. I’ve had families that leave their homes because their utilities have been cut off. They’re staying with relatives. They’re staying in a hotel or motel to stay warm and have access to showers and things like that. If they spend money on the hotel, then they’re not able to spend that money on rent. It’s kind of like a never-ending cycle.

We try to catch them early and get them referred to homeless prevention, especially our families who are receiving a rental subsidy. The fear or concern is that, if they get evicted for not paying what nominal amount they owe per month in rent and lose their subsidy, it may take years to get that back. I’m seeing kids on my caseload in 2019 that were kids on my caseload in 2016 and 2017 because Mom or Dad or whomever they’re staying with already have a judgment against them. They already have an eviction against them and, unless they find a private landlord that’s willing to rent to them, they are really struggling to find adequate housing here.

Describe a good day and a bad day at the office. A good day at the office is when you don’t get a McKinney-Vento referral because someone did not get displaced last night. For the McKinney-Vento students, I would say a good day in the office is a day that you know that the child has come to school. They were there on time, so they got their breakfast. They got their lunch and they didn’t miss any instruction. They know exactly where they’re going back to at the end of the school day. A hard day is when we reach out to a family that is potentially losing their housing and try to get them the resources that they need, but the family doesn’t follow through and eventually is evicted.

What should people know about this issue? Just handle everyone with care. There’s no single cause to homelessness. Homelessness does not look like one thing in particular. Homelessness includes not just that person in the park or the emergency shelter, but people doubling up because of economic hardship, living in a hotel or motel because they’ve lost their home, losing a home to foreclosure, and becoming displaced because of astronomical health bills. I would like to see more affordable housing but, person to person, if I could just sit down with everyone in the city and say, “Homelessness doesn’t have a standard picture. It could be any one of us.”

What motivates you to do this work? Growing up, my grandparents lived in this old farmhouse. They lived off the land and did not have a lot, but my grandmother always made sure that she would have food boxes for people. If anybody needed a place to stay, they were always welcome. Every time I think about leaving this position, I think about how this is something she would have done. I feel like I’m honoring her memory by doing it.

What is your dream or prayer for your students? My most common prayer for my students is always that of safety. I pray for safety, warmth, and shelter. I think if the Lord ever gets tired of hearing from me, he’s going to say, “Judy, please stop saying safety, warmth, and shelter.”

Three Ways You Can Help

1. DONATE. Consider donating school supplies, cold weather clothes (jackets, hats, etc.) to homeless youth at 1517 Jackson Street (Terrace Level). Make an appointment to drop off supplies by calling (434) 455-0288.
2. VOLUNTEER. Give your time to organizations such as the Salvation Army and Daily Bread. Volunteer at local schools.
3. EMPATHIZE. Brooks says, have empathy, “because what you don’t observe on the outside, you have no idea what trauma or turmoil that person is experiencing or has been experiencing.”