Homeless children often overlooked

Homeless youth in the United States deserve the same rights as everyone else, including suitable housing, an adequate education and legal representation, according to a former law student at Northern Kentucky University.

Homeless children often do not receive their American rights, said Marianne Chevalier, a graduate of the Chase College of Law.

She said she hopes to change this situation.

Chevalier is part of the Homeless Youth Project, a joint effort between NKU and the Children’s Law Center of Covington, which seeks to address homeless education, housing, and legal issues.

The project is currently in its initial phase, which “includes a lot of planning, brainstorming, and networking,” she said.

“Our definition (of homelessness) may be different than others,” she said. “It includes both children who are part of a homeless family and older children who have been kicked out or left alone by parents.”

There are other programs in the area designed to help homeless children, but Chevalier said they have restrictions that can cause problems.

“They have good intentions, but the rules get in the way,” she said. “There are too many obstacles.”

For example, despite the amount of public housing developments in Northern Kentucky, most families cannot gain access to them because a favorable rental history of five years is required. If a family was evicted or had past due rent or utilities, they will not be accepted, Chevalier said.

The homeless also encounter obstacles in obtaining an adequate education.

“Under federal law, homeless youth have a right to an education, but implementing these laws is hard,” Chevalier said.

Most schools require documentation to enroll but, she added, “Homeless people don’t tend to keep a lockbox of their important documents with them.”

Chevalier said it should not matter that they lack certain documentation, and they should be enrolled immediately.

The McKinney-Vento Act was initiated to help homeless people obtain an education. This federal law requires all public school districts to have a Homeless Education Coordinator, a liason between the schools and the homeless.

But the law still runs into problems.

When Chevalier called local schools to speak to these liaisons, most secretaries didn’t know what she was talking about.

If homeless youth can’t even be directed to the correct person, Chevalier said, then they’ve reached a “dead end.”

“Once they’re tuned away, they’ll give up,” she said. “They won’t fight for their rights. They’re humiliated to be homeless.”

Dr. Lowell Schechter, a principal investigator for the Homeless Youth Project, said he believes that many schools aren’t fully aware of these laws and haven’t been adequately trained.

“We need to educate the educators,” said Schechter, a professor at Chase College of Law.

In addition to examining housing and educational issues, the Homeless Youth Project is looking into legal emancipation issues and special needs of homeless immigrant children.

At Chase College of Law, Schechter said that many non-traditional students are bringing their expertise to the table.

“Many people feel very strong about these issues,” he said.