Years Later, Still Ignorance of the Law!

The comprehensive federal law guaranteeing homeless kids access to education passed in 2002. Why do I still hear about educators not knowing/complying?

Diane Nilan
4 min readApr 17, 2018

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As a kid, I wasn’t much of a student, but I showed up, earning perfect attendance several years in a row. Part of why I liked going to school was the structure, the camaraderie, and the extracurricular activities. School was an escape from home.

Me, showing up for school despite my academic ambivilence. But give me a microphone…

My home life wasn’t horrible, though I earned a few points on the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) scorecard. School gave me more than I know. It led me to be me here confidently blogging. And it gave me the wherewithal to do the work I do.

As president of HEAR US Inc., my award-winning one-woman national nonprofit organization, I give voice and visibility to kids and families experiencing homelessness.

Me climbing back into my home-vehicle-office, after doing an interview last May at WOSU. Photo courtesy of Esther Honig

Since 2005, I’ve lived in a small motorhome, and traveled over 300,000 miles (mostly backroads), chronicling family/youth homelessness. Mostly I make short documentaries and videos to let those affected by homelessness share their stories, which in turn can be widely shared.

How did I land a gig like that? I ran shelters in IL for 15 years, and in the process witnessed astounding things — kids loving school despite not having a home, and kids being turned away from schools because they had no home.

I was part of a small group that fought for the Illinois Education for Homeless Children Act (aka Charlie’s Bill, read the story of this amazing 1st of its kind law here), then also worked to get this law passed on the federal level, the McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth Act.

Photo by Diane Nilan

But it’s not about me. It’s about the millions of kids who experience homelessness each year. They deserve a chance to get an education and to experience the stability of staying with their classmates and teachers despite homelessness (whenever possible). They deserve opportunities to excel academically and/or in extracurricular activities.

And the McKinney-Vento Act clearly states what responsibilities schools have in providing education to kids — preK - high school. We’ve even managed to get the postsecondary education rights sort of changed to make it easier for homeless youth on their own to navigate FAFSA.

Talking about school and her homelessness brought tears to her eyes. Photo by Diane Nilan

So when my friend Lynda in Washington State recently responded to one of my Facebook posts (friend me if this topic interests you) about kids not getting into school because they had no address (we call that homeless!), she wondered if this law would apply in WA. Well, yes! Despite what a social worker at the high school told her the 3 times she tried to enroll kids with no homes.

Gallant efforts of passionate people have opened school doors to kids experiencing homelessness. It’s critically important to the families and youth. It’s a challenging but essential responsibility for the schools. It’s vital for the well-being of communities across the nation. And it’s a federal law.

What I’ve learned in all my years of rabble-rousing is that a good law means nothing if people are unaware of it. That’s fueled my work at HEAR US. I’m honored to be part of a growing effort to make sure kids can

  • get on the bus to get to/from school,
  • have enough food to fuel their bodies and brains,
  • enjoy the stability of their school environment,
  • have the supplies they need to succeed,
  • participate in extracurricular activities, and
  • graduate with access to postsecondary education if they choose.

We Must Improve Homeless Kids’ Access to and Success in School

Kids need to go to school, and to have the opportunity to succeed to the best of their ability. Kids without homes might, logically speaking, need a tad more help with this. Those of us who’ve successfully run the education gauntlet can do something to make this possible for others. A few suggestions:

  • Find out who serves as “homeless liaison” at your school district. (Plenty of info on this site.)
  • Ask the liaison what is needed — school supplies, clothing, shoes, laundry tokens, band instruments, etc. — and fill the need as best you can.
  • Check out our HEAR US publication, The Charlie Book: 60 Ways to Help Homeless Kids. It’s chock full of ideas, small to large!
  • Volunteer at your local shelter, food provision effort(soup kitchen or pantry), or tutor (if the possibility exists).
  • Learn more about and stand up for those experiencing homelessness. My book, Crossing the Line: Taking Steps to End Homelessness, is a reader-friendly tome to generate understanding and compassion. And the HEAR US video link will let you peruse dozens of short videos, free, featuring homeless families/youth.

Show up. Do your best. Help others.

Those are the lessons I learned during my educational years. I am trying to at least get an A for effort.

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Diane Nilan

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 18 yrs. on US backroads. hearus.us