Cathy Requejo has been the Project HELP (Homeless Education and Learning Program) supervisor and liaison for homeless students with the Austin Independent School District (AISD) for 14 years. A federally mandated position, the liaison identifies homeless youth and removes barriers to their education.
“On average, we identify approximately 2,000 homeless students per year attending AISD. Inconsistent attendance, excessive tardies, extreme fatigue, complaining about being hungry, hygiene changes—those are definitely signs of crisis and homelessness. Based on research, typically 10 percent of [economically disadvantaged] students are homeless. So really we believe there’s more like 4,000 to 6,000 homeless students in [AISD]. You have many of them that don’t want people to know their situation, or are moving around so much they have not been identified.
“The first thing we want to do is assure that they have their immediate needs. It’s complicated. You’re not just thinking about, ‘Are the homeless getting into school?’ You’re saying, ‘Who am I going to talk to about housing? Who am I going to stay connected to for clothing and food?’ The connections we have [in the community] have been so beneficial, but imagine how much time that leaves for, ‘Who am I going to collaborate with in respect to their academic needs?’
“When a student is in a homeless situation, it’s not clear where they’re going to stay night to night. Sometimes in the crisis they don’t have the paperwork that’s usually required for enrollment. … lots of times they lack transportation to get to and from school. They’re in situations where maybe they’re staying with a friend or family member and there are already five family members, and now they’re bringing another four in. So they’re doubling up with a significant number that’s not very comfortable and not very private. They can’t do their schoolwork as effectively as a student who is going home to a comfortable setting.
“One of the biggest needs we have is the ability to access shelter for folks who are in a homeless situation. The shelters are full. If we have a family that’s going to be in their car or on the street, we can call the shelters and they will make [that family] their first consideration. But if there is no room, there is no room. Then we have the opportunity to seek out one of our donors and say, ‘We tried to get them in the shelters. There’s a list. Can you help out with a motel stay?’ I would say 70 percent of the time we’re successful. It got so bad [last year] that we had to make an arrangement with a church so [three families had a] safe place to park their cars at night until they could access the shelter.
“It could be your sister, your brother, our own families, your neighbor next door. It isn’t simply uncaring adults with kids or kids who just don’t care to be home. It’s a reality that we need to comprehend and understand … that’s our hope: That the more we get the word out, the more eyes, ears and hands are working on making a difference.”