MANSFIELD – Phil Mitchell begins his workday like many of us -- he checks his email inbox. But the correspondence he's looking for is hardly ordinary.
Mitchell is the coordinator of the Mansfield City Schools S.A.F.E. program, which identifies unhoused students and offers support to them and their families.
One of the primary ways schools identify these students is through student registration paperwork. At Mansfield City, parents or guardians must fill out a form for new students that includes a residency questionnaire.
“It asks if (their residence) is a permanent, temporary or shared housing, it asks if you are staying with grandparent, family member, stuff of that nature,” Mitchell said.
If a student is listed as having temporary or shared housing, Mitchell follows up with the family to verify their living arrangements and offer assistance.
While unhoused students are often identified during student registration, Mitchell also gets referrals throughout the school year. Teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other members of the school community are all trained to watch for signs that a student may be without a home.
“Every day that I come into work, I usually have three or four, sometimes five emails from someone inside the system,” Mitchell said. “I call everybody to verify what’s going on, to see what’s actually happening and what kind of help they need.”
Every public school district is required to identify, track and assist unhoused students and their families under federal law. But that work has gotten harder since the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Richland County, the number of students identified as unhoused by their school district dropped from 533 to 428 during the 2020-2021 school year, according to data from the Ohio Department of Education.
During the 2019-2020 school year, unhoused children made up 2.8 percent of students enrolled across the county. The following school year, that figure dropped to 2.2 percent.
School officials say it's likely because students spent less time at school, where educators could watch for signs of homelessness.
“We call them hidden in plain sight because they're sitting in your classroom, they just don’t have a big sign that says 'Hey, I'm homeless,'" Mitchell said.
School districts zero out their homeless count at the beginning of each school year. Mitchell said Mansfield City's count recently hit 300.
“A lot of your identification comes from them going to school," Mitchell said. "Since they’ve been in and out of school so frequently, I’m surprised our numbers are as high as there are.”
“They're out there, I know they're there.”
Homelessness is most prominent in the Mansfield City school district, where 316 students were identified as unhoused during the 2020-2021 school year.
But homelessness is not isolated to the county seat.
There were 38 identified unhoused students in Madison Local school district that year and 10 in Lexington. Lexington’s numbers were much higher prior to the pandemic, with 43 identified unhoused students in 2018-2019 and 49 in 2019-2020.
It’s also worth noting the criteria for counting a student as "homeless" under federal guidelines is broader than most people realize. A person can still be counted as "homeless" even if they are sheltered.
Most of the unhoused students at Mansfield City Schools are living in another person’s home due to loss of housing or economic hardship. These children and their families are often “doubled up” with relatives or friends in a single family home, so they are still considered homeless.
Under the McKinney Vento Homeless Assistance Act, unhoused children and youths are those who "lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence."
Adrian Ackerman, Mansfield's community development and housing director, said the federal government has different resources available for people depending on what kind of homelessness they face.
"We typically think the true definition of homelessness is sleeping on the street, but it is a little broader than that," Ackerman explained. "If someone is couch surfing, they're homeless, but they're sheltered homeless."
Vickie Stima serves as the homeless liaison at Lexington Local Schools. She has seen students live doubled up while their homes are being built or while a parent is deployed. The most common situation for unhoused children in the district is a student and their parent living with a parent's boyfriend or girlfriend due to economic necessity.
Stima shared concerns about tracking unhoused students during COVID-19. She's not getting as much data from registration forms as she used to.
“If they mark stuff on this form, I would contact them to see what they specific reason was and if they needed any help," she said. “They were all at home and nobody filled out the forms."
What rights do unhoused children have?
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act is a federal law that protects the educational rights of unhoused children. The law also outlines public schools’ responsibilities for accommodating students facing homelessness.
Under McKinney-Vento, all public school districts are required to identify and count the number of unhoused students attending each year.
Schools must also have an appointed liaison who can meet with unhoused families, facilitate access to school and transportation services and make them aware of their educational rights.
Under the McKinney-Vento Act, unhoused students retain the right to stay in their home school even if they move out of their district, provided it is in the child’s best interest. School districts must continue providing transportation to unhoused students, even if it means changing bus routes.
If a student is too far away to continue attending their home school, their new school must allow them to enroll immediately, even if their family lacks normally required documents like proof of residence and immunization records.
The McKinney-Vento Act also designates limited funding for each state to assist unhoused students. Schools are not guaranteed an allocation -- they must apply.
How are schools funded for unhoused services?
During the pandemic, the federal government gave some school districts funds specifically to serve unhoused students. It was a unique move -- schools do not ordinarily receive designated funding for unhoused students. However, schools that receive Title I funds are required to set aside a certain amount to serve unhoused students. (Title I allocations are determined by the number of students who qualify as "low income.")
Schools can also apply for competitive grants to bolster their services for unhoused students.
Mansfield City was awarded its most recent McKinney-Vento grant of $45,000 in 2019. The bulk of those funds were used to pay Mitchell's salary, according to Holly Christie, the district's director of student support programs.
Mansfield City is the only district in the area to have a part-time staff member whose sole responsibility is to help unhoused children and families.
The rest of the grant funding was used to help fund summer enrichment programs and the district's S.A.F.E. program, which provides clothes, hygiene products and school supplies to unhoused students and their families. Much of SAFE's stockpile comes from community donations.
Mansfield City also applied for a competitive grant to fund a part-time community health worker from Third Street Family Health Services. The district received $183,575.14 in American Rescue Plan Act funding.
"These funds will be used to pay a Community Health worker to work with families experiencing homelessness," Christie said. "They will have a special focus on buildings with a higher number of students experiencing homelessness to provide support, but all buildings can benefit from these services."