School district pushes homeless-support bill

Bill would provide $10 million in rental assistance and housing support

Minneapolis Public Schools Manager of Homeless and Highly Mobile Student Services Ryan Strack (far right) testifies in favor in a bill that would provide funds for homeless students and their families. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

Minneapolis Public Schools is helping advocate for a bill that would provide $10 million in rental assistance and housing support for students across Minnesota who lack stable housing.

Ryan Strack, MPS’ manager of homeless and highly mobile student services, testified in support of the bill during a Minnesota Senate hearing on March 8. Strack said educational success and housing stability are closely linked, noting that housing supports help improve educational outcomes.

“We understand that safe and stable housing provides a critical foundation for learning,” Strack said.

About 3,670 MPS students experienced homelessness during the 2015–2016 school year, or about 8 percent of the district’s student population. About half of those kids were in preschool through second grade.

The bill, known as the CLASS Act, would expand on a pilot program to provide housing support for these students and their families. It would designate $8 million over the next two years for rental assistance and $2 million for short-term assistance and housing supports. The bill would expand on a pilot program that provided rental assistance to families in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Moorhead.

The pilot provided 121 families up to two years of rental assistance, allowing them to spend only 30 percent of their income on rent. More than 70 percent of students were stably housed at the end of the pilot.

Students in the pilot who achieved stable housing had decreased rates of chronic absenteeism, and their families’ average household incomes increased by 15 percent.

The Minnesota Legislature provided $2 million over the past two biennia for the pilot. Dara Lee, executive director of Clay County Housing and Redevelopment Authority, said school administrators and social workers in her area appreciate what the program does for kids.

Those social workers and administrators reported back that they have seen decreased absenteeism and better mental health, Lee said.

Maurice Hodges of St. Paul was one of the parents who utilized the pilot program. Hodges and his daughter became homeless about four years ago after his wife died. After being introduced to the pilot program, he found an affordable place to live and his daughter’s attendance at school improved, as did her grades.

Lee said the program helped stably house a family of nine that included seven kids under 10 years old.

“We know that that’s a huge long-term impact on those kids’ lives,” she said.

According to the Wilder Foundation, there are 6,500 children in Minnesota who are homeless on any given night. Children who experience homelessness and receive free or reduced-priced lunch have lower attendance and perform worse on statewide standardized tests, according to the CLASS Act evaluation. By sixth grade, low attendance correlates with low academic achievement and low graduation rates.

Federal law requires schools to enroll homeless students immediately, even if they lack documents normally required for enrollment. The districts are also required to transport the students to and from school, if requested, costs that can add up.

MPS spent more than $5,200 on transportation costs per homeless student in 2015–2016, compared to about $400 on transportation costs for housed students. St. Paul Public Schools spent more than $2,700 on transportation costs per homeless student last school year, compared to about $400 for housed students.

Superintendent Ed Graff said at the Feb. 23 School Board Finance Committee meeting that the district’s fastest-growing expense is for homeless and foster-care transportation. Graff said the district spent $8 million to transport homeless students last year, including $2 million on taxis.

Strack said the current bill would not only benefit homeless students but also would stabilize classrooms and help schools reduce transportation costs.

“There’s a lot that they bring into the classroom with them,” Strack said. “We’re trying to, as much as we can, let the student focus on school and make sure (housing is) one stable thing for their life.”