Legal and Moral Obligations to Homeless Students

By Edwin C. Darden 

How does it feel? Yeah, how does it feel? To be on your own. With no direction home. Like a complete unknown. Like a rolling stone.”

              -- Bob Dylan, “Like A Rolling Stone”

Money was running dangerously low in the Walters household. Mom had breast cancer, medical bills and daily debts were piling up, and it was only a matter of time before Ms. Walters and her third-grade special-needs son, “Joey,” would lose their home.

The good news is the duo had a back-up plan: move in with her mother who lived in a neighboring school district in New York state. The bad news: When Walters (a created name) took that path, her decision ignited a controversy about whether the family was truly “homeless” -- since a year later the pair was still living in grandma’s basement. Joey still was attending his original school and the district there was paying for transportation. Officials said his grandmother’s school district was a more appropriate placement.

This conflict and others like it illuminate a familiar federal law formally called the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Improvements Act. The 1987 law was passed by Congress to guarantee kids without a permanent address the same opportunity to enroll, attend, and succeed at school as any other student.

What the Walters family did is known in federal regulations as “doubling up.” It happens when a family without a home of their own moves in with a relative or friend for a period of time. McKinney-Vento is clear that a family qualifies as homeless in a doubling-up situation. However, neither the law nor the regulations specify a time limit on a family continuing to receive benefits (such as transportation and special academic help) at district expense.

Such details can be fodder for fighting.

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