Abolishing Homelessness: Interview with
Maria Foscarinis, Esq. Executive Director,
National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty
Education Update (EU): Given that a fraction of eligible homeless persons are receiving benefits, what efforts are being made to assure that homeless individuals are adequately receiving access to assistance programs?
Maria Foscarinis (MF): This is a large part of our work here at National Law Center of Homelessness—advocating to remove the barriers that prevent homeless people from receiving the benefits they need and to which they are entitled. We do this by advocating with government agencies and Congress. In some cases we go to court—as we did recently to ensure access to school for homeless kids.
EU: What future legislation would you hope to see regarding the education of the homeless?
MF: Ultimately, what we want is legislation that promotes residential stability for poor families—this would promote stability of school placement and hopefully improve academic and social outcomes for homeless children. A further “big picture” goal is improving the quality of education that homeless and other poor children receive. Right now we are focused simply on access to education; in the future we need to ensure access to quality education, to really give these kids a chance and an equal opportunity to be successful adults.
On a more specific level, we’d like a greater role for the U.S. Department of Education in enforcing the right of education rights of homeless children, while preserving the right of families to sue in federal court. We’d also like to see protections to ensure that unaccompanied youth have safe shelter and a means of accessing an education without having to worry about being returned to the custody of abusive parents or guardians. We also want to ensure that homeless pre-schoolers have access to Head Start. More technical but important practical goals are reforming the McKinney-Vento Act to require transportation for homeless preschoolers; a provision that specifies whether the school of origin or school of current location must provide transportation (current law allows the two districts to decide between themselves which sometimes leads to transportation delays as districts try to strike a deal), and a clearer expression of the right to immediate enrollment even if the child has yet to complete immunizations. EU: If budget was not a factor, name two optimal services that you would recommend to extricate families from the desperate situation of homelessness? MF: Safe, decent, affordable housing is essential. Next is a range of comprehensive support services that are easy to access such as job assistance (training, search, and child care), health services, and help in applying for and receiving benefits for which the family may be eligible, such as Food Stamps, Medicaid, WIC. Help should be centralized and easy to get—unlike the current fragmented systems that often require families to travel all over to different agencies and fill out multiple forms. Make it simple and efficient—it’s in everyone’s interest. EU: How important, in your opinion, is improving the educational access of homeless children to your overall goal of “abolishing” homelessness? MF: It’s extremely important. Education—especially good quality education—is the true key to breaking the cycle of homelessness and poverty. It’s a major homelessness prevention strategy—it can prevent homeless children from becoming homeless adults. In the immediate term, access to school and pre-school can often also mean access to school services like meals, health and other services that can help stabilize the whole family, and help them out of homelessness.#