Imagine you’re a 7 year old and your family becomes homeless. Every night, you fall asleep in a shelter, in a car, on the street. Imagine moving in and out of the assistance system, shuffled back and forth from shelters to programs to relatives. Suddenly, school, teachers, classmates, and even homework become the constants in your life – anchors of normalcy when everything else seems to be falling apart.
Last Thursday, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty hosted the annual McKinney-Vento Awards, the organization’s yearly tribute to leaders in the field. This year’s awardees included best-selling author Barbara Ehrenreich, the law firm Dechert LLP, and the Elzer family of Pittsburgh, PA.
As a novice to the organization and the issue, I felt lucky to tag along and learn. Even on a national level the homeless assistance community is a small one. That is why these events like this one are great opportunities to meet other people in the field, recognize the innovators, and connect with like-minded people and organizations.
As I sat taking in the night, one issue resonated with me most: the plight of homeless children.
The McKinney-Vento Act allows children in homeless families to stay in their original public school regardless of where their family is temporarily staying. Still, as I learned Thursday evening, there are homeless children who face discrimination when trying to exercise that right.
The Elzer family faced just this situation. When Bill Elzer lost his job, his family found itself homeless and their children were forced out of their school.
But the Elzers weren’t having it. With the assistance of the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, the Elzers sued to have their children re-enrolled. The family won their battle and the children were able to return to their school this past spring. Because of this lawsuit and others like it, Pennsylvania now has guidelines to prevent other homeless children from having to experience the same injustices.
As the nation continues to recover from the grinding effects of this lasting recession, we can and must do more to extend even the smallest courtesies to each other – especially when the other is a young child. In a time of economic uncertainty and fear, we must work together in order to overcome our national challenges.
This was the message that the night most obvious on Thursday night, surrounded by people who have long been working to end homelessness in America. If we are to end homelessness in the nation, we must be willing to work together to create the best possible outcomes for the vulnerable people we serve.