Farmington Schools Provides Transportation and Other Services to Homeless Students
The district helps 66 students and their families across the grade level spectrum.
Michele Harmala is responsible for seeing that those students receive the help they need to get through a tough time. The assistant superintendent for student support said she's in her first year of serving as liaison for families who are homeless. Referrals may be made by a school, or parents learn about her office through word-of-mouth or another agency.
Once parents connect with the district, they fill out a needs checklist. Oakland Intermediate School District coordinates donations of things like coats and boots, and students can receive a backpack filled with school supplies.
"One of the typical things we provide," Harmala said, "is transportation to school. One of the primary issues for families is they want (their children) to stay in the district."
Under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1987, homeless families have that right. Schools must find a way to keep children in the school they attended before they became homeless, even if it means providing a bus to get them there.
Harmala said in addition to bus service, the district has paid for taxi cabs or given families a gas card, so they can afford to drive their children to school. Families are also signed up for free or reduced lunch and connected with local agencies, like Neighborhood House in Farmington Hills.
The idea is to provide for "the stability of the student", Harmala explained. Under the federal law, students are entitled to services until they no longer "lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence”, which is how the law defines homelessness. Students may attend the district through the academic year in which their family finds a permanent home.
The Detroit Free Press reports that data from the Michigan Dept. of Education shows homelessness among Michigan students has increased by 315 percent over the past four years. Because she's new to the job of helping homeless families, Harmala said she doesn't have deep data, but believes the district is seeing more than in the past.
Homelessness doesn't hit a certain kind of family, or a certain grade level.
"We have (homeless) students in elementary, upper elementary, middle school and high school," Harmala said. "They fall across the grade level spectrum."
The Detroit Free Press series includes an interview with former Farmington Hills resident, Nicole Larabee, who is homeless and living with her 14-year-old son in a friend's basement. Read her story.