Homelessness in School Policy

For a precedent on youth homelessness and school, one must turn toward Alberta, but also away from policy narrowly defined. One official resource, which is not a policy, addresses school personnel responses to youth homelessness in Alberta.

Alberta has the only official resource from a province/territory or district reviewed that explicitly and substantively addresses school-based prevention and responses to homelessness. It is not a policy, but rather a set of guidelines and recommendations for teachers that is not binding in any way about:

“how to recognize signs of youth homelessness and resources to respond.”

The document correctly notes that:

“some students might not categorize themselves as homeless despite living in non-traditional housing arrangements”

“groups may be more vulnerable to homelessness than others, including … youth[,] the elderly[,] women[,] members of the LGBTQ2S+ community [… and] Indigenous Peoples.”

It stresses the importance of attending to “each student’s individual situation” and lists various signs of and contributors to homelessness. A list of “practical support[s]” mirrors suggestions from Youth Team interviews and the research literature on youth homelessness:

Consider providing bus tickets for transportation […] Help accessing school nutrition programs […] Help accessing laundry facilities […] Waive school fees […] Consider providing school supplies […] Help with accessing a mentor or other relational-based supports such as success coaches or a family-school liaison […] Provide resources and connection to community-based programs and agencies.

In contrast to all other reviewed education policies relating to homelessness (critiqued below), these suggested interventions do not require one or a few school authorities to decide to make exceptions for homeless students, they emphasize interventions through relationships that are not only authority-based, and they center and materially address poverty, social isolation, hunger, hygiene, and transport.

As precedents for potential future policies, these suggested supports match recommendations of Working Upstream interviewees and youth homelessness researchers. However, this document also shares a limit with the remaining policies critiqued below: it identifies critical social issues overlapping with youth homelessness and then does not discuss what to do about them. In this case, the document correctly identifies that vulnerability to homelessness:

“may be” higher among “youth[,] the elderly[,] women[,] members of the LGBTQ2S+ community [… and] Indigenous Peoples”

“circumstances that may have resulted in” homelessness can include:
[…] catastrophic events[,] loss of employment[,] family break-up[,] family violence[,] onset of mental and/or other debilitating illnesses[,] substance use by oneself or family members[,] physical, sexual or emotional abuse[; and] involvement in the child welfare system[.]

However the document does not discuss what to do about these complexities or vulnerabilities in its discussion of “how to respond.” If responses to youth homelessness are to include all youth, they ought to address unique needs of these and other groups and situations that connect with homelessness, and the social issues such as ageism, sexism/patriarchy, heteronormativity, racialization and settler-colonialism which intersect with homelessness in unique ways and demand unique prevention and response strategies. Future policies would need to be based on precedents including these aspects too.

Moreover, this document is not findable by clicking through buttons on the Alberta Ministry of Education website, but rather through the “Education and Training” section of the general Alberta provincial government website, which limits its connection to other school policies or guidelines from the Ministry and leaves it ambiguous how or if the Ministry of Education approves, wrote, or uses its contents. A search using the Internet archive the Wayback Machine shows the page is apparently new, being first catalogued in March 2019. In short, guidelines that are non-binding, are not findable through the Ministry of Education’s publications, which only come from one provincial government, and which do not address most cognate issues of homelessness, and which focus on responding to homelessness after it has started (rather than preventing it ‘upstream’) constitute the current cutting edge of provincial, territorial and district youth homelessness policy (or more accurately policy-adjacent) work about school-based responses to homelessness in Canada. While this document is not a policy, it is a guideline that may influence future policies and which can serve as a case study of guidelines to critique when thinking through what those policies ought to look like.

Attendance

Guidelines on an official Alberta Ministry of Education webpage about Attendance Supports state:

Determining the reason for absenteeism is essential for identifying barriers to attendance, including: food … shelter … mental/physical health … transportation or other challenges

These barriers to attendance, not coincidentally, constitute poverty and homelessness-related causes of absences. The guidelines in this document never mention suspension, expulsion, punishment or discipline. Instead, they focus on how to support students’ attendance and they frame “attendance issues [as] often a first sign that a student is experiencing life challenges.” This represents a much more compatible approach to school-based youth homelessness prevention than the attendance policies critiqued above, and it stands in stark contrast to all existing Education Act policies including those of its own province of Alberta. Getting at root causes of absences aligns with a prevention-focused, ‘Upstream’ approach that can prevent absence before it happens, whereas discipline and punishment occur reactively after the issues have already started. When these issues arise because of homelessness, they reflect something that ideally should have been identified and prevented earlier.

The rare queer and trans policies that address the connection between queer and trans issues and homelessness (which may be only BC plus Alberta solely by quoting BC) still limit the discussion at the level of symptom identification, by correctly identifying that homelessness is more likely for queer than straight youth but not mandating what if anything schools are supposed to do about that fact. Perhaps queer and trans youth need different supports than straight youth, for example, in avoiding homelessness, if being queer may bring with it unique challenges that can make it harder to avoid/prevent homelessness. Stipulating any of these uniquenesses in policy could potentially lead to school-based prevention and response strategies, and would at least provide a foundation in policy that groups arguing for such school-based interventions could draw on as legal support. Calls for schools to fully include queer and trans students, ubiquitous across provinces, territories, and districts, fail to include all queer and trans youth when they lack specifics about homelessness. Without such specifics, these policies inappropriately represent queer and trans students, because of the significantly increased risk of homelessness queer and trans students face. It is important to address homelessness for LGBTQ+ policies to address all queer and trans students rather than only the more privileged ones.

On the positive side of LGBTQ+ policies, policies that more comprehensively mandate schools perform the basic social tasks required to treat queer and trans students with dignity can be viewed as positive contributions to homelessness prevention (if they are applied), insofar as general social isolation, bullying, and alienation from school for gender and sexuality-related reasons are risk factors for homelessness. Therefore, the fact that British Columbia (and Alberta, which copies British Columbia’s) has the most comprehensive transgender policy of the provinces and territories, in which transgender students have the right to be called their correct name and pronoun, dress how they choose, and use the changerooms and bathrooms they choose; and in which sex-segregated activities are mandated to be minimized; can be seen as a relatively better policy for youth homelessness prevention compared to other provinces and territories which do not have all of these provisions. Even though the policy does not explicitly mention homelessness, it addresses queer and trans inclusion which are important cognate issues of homelessness. As discussed above, this policy could improve by explicitly addressing youth homelessness’ intersection with queer and trans issues, but even without doing this, research on queer and trans students and homelessness suggests that having these provisions in place is better for queer and trans youth homelessness prevention than having none.

Student Responsibilities

Every provincial/territorial Education Act has a near-identical section listing the many responsibilities of students, without explaining how it can be known that students even have the ability, let alone the moral obligation, to do all these things. Here is an example from Alberta:

A student, as a partner in education, has the responsibility to
(a) attend school regularly and punctually,
(b) be ready to learn and actively engage in and diligently pursue the student’s education,
(c) ensure that the student’s conduct contributes to a welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning environment that respects diversity and fosters a sense of belonging,
(d) respect the rights of others in the school,
(e) refrain from, report and not tolerate bullying or bullying behaviour directed toward others in the school, whether or not it occurs within the school building, during the school day or by electronic means,
(f) comply with the rules of the school and the policies of the board,
(g) co-operate with everyone authorized by the board to provide education programs and other services,
(h) be accountable to the student’s teachers and other school staff for the student’s conduct, and
(i) positively contribute to the student’s school and community.

However, not every student can live up these, because of differences in available resources, abilities/disabilities, linguistic, social and developmental capacities, or parental/family support, and hindrance/abuse can affect these.