Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis: How Barbara Duffield & SchoolHouse Connection Are Helping People To Overcome Homelessness Through Education

A number of years ago, a college student attended a workshop I was conducting at a national conference. She mentioned her struggles with the financial aid office (she was an unaccompanied homeless youth, and the financial aid office kept giving her a hard time about documenting her status, despite federal policies in place requiring financial aid administrators to remove these barriers). I connected the student to people in her home state who I knew really well — people I knew would advocate for her directly in all areas of her life. I also stayed in contact with her. Over the next few years, she experienced many challenges, including having nowhere to go during academic breaks and serious mental health struggles resulting from her traumatic childhood. A number of adults, myself included, pulled together to help her address these various needs, one by one, as they came up. This student not only graduated, but also became a tremendous advocate for other youth experiencing homelessness. For this student, like many students in our Youth Leadership and Scholarship program, advocacy can be both effective and therapeutic. In seeing her own power to change systems and impact the lives of other people, she came to more fully believe in herself and value her own agency.

As a part of my series about “Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis” I had the pleasure of interviewing Barbara Duffield.

Barbara Duffield is Executive Director of SchoolHouse Connection, a national non-profit organization working to overcome homelessness through education. Barbara began her career as a tutor for children experiencing homelessness in Washington DC in 1990, served as the Director of Education for the National Coalition for the Homeless from 1994–2003, and as the Director of Policy and Programs for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth in Washington D.C from 2003–2016. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Michigan.)

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your personal background, and how you grew up?

I grew up in rural Michigan, the youngest (by seven minutes — I’m a twin) of four children. My parents were both raised in blue-collar families: my paternal grandfather worked in the steel mills of PA, my maternal grandfather was a butcher in a small village in OH, and neither of my grandmothers were allowed to finish high school. My parents were the first in their respective families to attend college, and my father ultimately became a children’s dentist. My parents worked incredibly hard to make sure that I had the opportunity to go to college. Coming from a rural community, I was enthralled to meet new people from different backgrounds at the University of Michigan in the late 1980s. It was there that the seeds of advocacy were planted and blossomed.

Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work helping people who are homeless?

When I first moved to Washington DC, I interned at Foreign Policy Magazine (my interest was international affairs, at the time). A copy editor took me under her wing and introduced me to Project Northstar, an after-school tutoring program for children experiencing homelessness in the District of Columbia. Working one-on-one with children in Project Northstar was transformative. I saw their endless possibilities and potential — the same abilities and aspirations as any other child — but also the grueling deep generational poverty that threatened their futures. Seeing them struggle — but also seeing them succeed — inspired me to focus on education as a lasting pathway out of homelessness, one that transfers across generations. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to create and grow scholarship programs, and through them, I’ve been a part of many young people’s journey to self-realization through education. “It is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.” Brown v. Board of Education.

Homelessness has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. Can you explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?

In the big cities you mentioned, there has been a significant increase in visible homelessness — that is, homelessness principally among single adults living on the streets. But family, child, and youth homelessness is both longstanding and far less visible, because families with children and unaccompanied homeless youth are rarely visible on the streets or in encampments. Instead, most stay with other people temporarily because they have nowhere else to go, or in motels, or moving between many unstable situations. Family, child, and youth homelessness has never been only an urban problem, and it’s hardly a recent one. Nevertheless, it has gotten worse over the years. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, public schools identified and enrolled 1.5 million homeless children and youth, aged preK-12 — that’s the highest number on record. The U.S. Department of Education also estimates an additional 1.4 million children under age six are experiencing homelessness.

The causes of increases in homelessness are complex, and vary across regions. In some areas, the lack of affordable housing has gotten worse; in other areas, the opioid and methamphetamines crises have contributed. Deep poverty persists, particularly for young children. Domestic violence remains a leading causal factor for families, as does abuse and neglect, and the abject failure of the child welfare system for youth who are homeless on their own. Systemic racism, across all systems, has a pervasive impact on homelessness.

I’d also argue that the homelessness assistance system, such as it is, has contributed to increasing homelessness: the move to quick-fix, one-size-fits-all housing models; the defunding of services; and the de-prioritization and exclusion of most youth and families who experience homelessness from homeless services have contributed to entrenched homelessness. The bottom line is that we aren’t addressing the complex root causes, we aren’t supporting individualized and community-based solutions, and we aren’t prioritizing youth and families — we’re just trying to get the most visible people experiencing homelessness out of sight, without recognizing the steady stream into street homelessness, much of which begins in childhood.

For the benefit of our readers, can you describe the typical progression of how one starts as a healthy young person with a place to live, a job, an education, a family support system, a social support system, a community support system, to an individual who is sleeping on the ground at night? How does that progression occur?

There isn’t such a thing as a typical progression into homelessness, but we do know that many homeless adults have histories of childhood homelessness. Many homeless adults actually did not start out as healthy young people with stable places to live, a job, an education, and a family, and with a social, and community support system. Instead, homelessness is often a multi-generational phenomenon. For example, 20% of unsheltered homeless adults in Los Angeles indicated that they first experienced homelessness when they were under age 18, and 25% when they were young adults between the ages of 18–24. In Seattle, 18% of homeless adults indicated that their first experience of homelessness occurred when they were under age 18, and 27% when they were between the ages of 18–24. And in the state of Minnesota, more than half (52%) of homeless adults surveyed first became homeless by the time they were age 24, and over one-third (36%) first became homeless at or before age 18.

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) also are correlated with adult homelessness. Examples of ACEs include emotional abuse, neglect, mental illness, parental separation and substance abuse. As the number of ACEs in a person’s life accumulate, the likelihood of experiencing homelessness increases. In Minnesota, the majority (73%) of homeless adults had experienced at least one ACE, and over half (59%) reported multiple ACEs. For each ACE reported by homeless adults, the average age of the first episode of homelessness drops considerably.

Finally, some of the best research on pathways into homelessness comes from a study by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. The study found that lack of a high school degree or GED is the single greatest risk factor associated with homelessness as a young adult, followed by having a child, and having a low-income.

Taken together, these findings reveal the long-term harmful impact of ACEs and how child homelessness can lead to youth homelessness, and then adult homelessness, where children of homeless adults may start the cycle again.

A question that many people who are not familiar with the intricacies of this problem ask is, “Why don’t homeless people just move to a city that has cheaper housing?” How do you answer this question?

People experiencing homelessness — which includes children, youth, and families — do not have the resources to move. In the case of families, it is also difficult to move with children. Youth who are homeless on their own may not even be old enough to sign a lease, so the cost of housing isn’t the driving factor and won’t remedy their homelessness.

If someone passes a homeless person on the street, what is the best way to help them?

There is no best way, because every person is a unique. I do think it is very important to acknowledge each person’s humanity, through eye contact and/or a greeting. I also think it is important to imagine that person when he or she was child, and try to understand how many children are at risk of being in that same position some day if we don’t intervene and prioritize their needs.

What is the best way to respond if a homeless person asks for money for rent or gas?

Again, there is no best way. Minimally, respond politely and acknowledge their presence.

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact battling this crisis?

SchoolHouse Connection engages in state and federal policy advocacy, from early childhood through higher education, and also provides practical assistance to communities nationwide. We’ve led efforts to strengthen federal protections and increase resources for children, youth, and families experiencing homelessness. For example, our advocacy led to a 32% increase in funding for public schools to identify and support homeless children and youth over the past four years — that translates to more children identified, enrolled in school, and receiving support to make it to graduation, which is their surest path out of homelessness permanently.

At the state level, we’ve achieved state policy reforms directly impacting over 600,000 youth by leading advocacy on 23 bills in 14 states, 16 of which became law. Those 16 new state laws are making specific, tangible improvements in the lives of homeless youth in a variety of areas, including increasing access to health care, shelter, housing and services; increasing access to employment; increasing access to vital documents needed for work and school; increasing high school graduation; and increasing access to and success in post-secondary education.

We work equally hard on making sure that laws are implemented robustly and with fidelity, which means creating and sustaining best practices locally, whether through tools like child-proofing checklists for shelters, assisting counselors with credit accrual for high school students, or removing barriers to financial aid for homeless youth in college. We also play a convening role, bringing early care providers, educators, and service providers together to share innovations and create action plans through webinars and trainings.

Finally, we support a Youth Leadership and Scholarship program, which provides scholarships to youth who have experienced homelessness to ensure their completion of a post-secondary education program. Our program also builds a stable peer and adult support network, and offers young people meaningful opportunities to engage in advocacy. Through this program, we ensure that all of our work reflects the lived experiences of young people and includes them as full partners.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the homeless crisis, and the homeless community? Also how has it affected your ability to help people?

The outbreak has caused even more mobility and danger for families and youth, especially those who stay with other people temporarily and thus who are not protected by eviction moratoria, and who cannot self-isolate or stay safe. Many of these families and youth were asked to leave, yet there is no shelter for them; most can’t pay for motels; and they are not a priority of the local homeless response systems. Communities have undertaken great efforts to move single adults from the streets and shelters into motel rooms, yet many families are being evicted from motels, often because they have lost their low-wage or sporadic jobs and can no longer pay.

At the same time, the closure of schools and early learning programs due to COVID-19 has been devastating. Schools and early learning programs were the one safe, stable place in the lives of children and youth experiencing homelessness — the place where their basic needs were met, and where they had a routine, normalcy, and opportunities to escape the dangers of their living situations and to focus on their futures. Now, school district homeless education personnel, and early learning family support staff, struggle to maintain contact with these students, who continue to move so often that even food delivery is challenging. And even if these students are provided devices and hotspots, the places where they are staying are not conducive to learning. The outbreak has increased their trauma, isolation, and deprivation; it has split up families, and put many in harm’s way. In short, it has created the conditions for massive and unprecedented adult homelessness down the road.

However, even with closures, schools and early learning programs are still the largest and the best source of support for children, youth, and families experiencing homelessness. Education is the only system with the clear mandate to identify and support all children and youth experiencing homelessness, regardless of the availability of shelter. Educators are still working to find students, connect them to resources, and minimize disruption to learning. They are still a lifeline.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

I’m most proud of the creation of SchoolHouse Connection. Together with one of my best friends and co-conspirators, Patricia Julianelle, we founded SchoolHouse Connection just three and a half years ago. We have a dynamic team, a large and diverse national network, and close relationships with young people and educators who inform our policy and our practice work. In a “housing ends homelessness” world, we’ve been able to maintain the integrity of our vision, which embraces education as the only permanent solution to homelessness, and we’ve achieved numerous tangible accomplishments. Starting and building a new organization has been an astonishing amount of work, but particularly now, in the midst of the national crisis of COVID-19, I am proud that SHC exists.

Prior to SHC, I’m most proud of the amendments to the education subtitle of the McKinney-Vento Act, and to the Head Start Act of 2007. I remember the days when liaisons were not required in every school district, when the right to stay in the same school and receive transportation did not exist, when preschool was not included, nor the transition to higher education. Similarly, Head Start programs now must remove barriers to the identification, enrollment, and participation of children experiencing homelessness. Seeing the impact of these policy changes over time, and knowing the lives they’ve changed — it’s profound.

Without sharing real names, can you share a story with our readers about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your work?

A number of years ago, a college student attended a workshop I was conducting at a national conference. She mentioned her struggles with the financial aid office (she was an unaccompanied homeless youth, and the financial aid office kept giving her a hard time about documenting her status, despite federal policies in place requiring financial aid administrators to remove these barriers). I connected the student to people in her home state who I knew really well — people I knew would advocate for her directly in all areas of her life. I also stayed in contact with her. Over the next few years, she experienced many challenges, including having nowhere to go during academic breaks and serious mental health struggles resulting from her traumatic childhood. A number of adults, myself included, pulled together to help her address these various needs, one by one, as they came up. This student not only graduated, but also became a tremendous advocate for other youth experiencing homelessness. For this student, like many students in our Youth Leadership and Scholarship program, advocacy can be both effective and therapeutic. In seeing her own power to change systems and impact the lives of other people, she came to more fully believe in herself and value her own agency.

Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this crisis? Can you give some examples?

  1. One of the most important things people can do is educate themselves about the realities of child, youth, and family homelessness. This means getting answers to common questions, listening to children, youth, and families, reading their perspectives, and understanding what research has to say about the role of education and services.
  2. I can’t say enough about the role of public schools, and public education. Public schools do more to address the root causes of homelessness than any other public system. But they need help, whether it is calling the local school district homeless liaison to ask what is most needed, speaking up at school board meetings, working through parent associations, or advocating for more funding for the McKinney-Vento Act’s Education for Homeless Children and Youth program.
  3. Policymakers and the public are often focused on people who are visibly homeless, who clearly need help from all levels of government and society. But if we want to address the root causes, we need to start to talk about homelessness as a children’s issue. Practically, this means talking to local, state, and federal elected officials, and asking what they are doing to address child and youth homelessness. The very act of asking, and raising the visibility of the topic, can create change.

If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

  1. Congress needs to support homeless and trafficked children and youth in the next COVID-19 legislation. These children and youth have been largely left out of previous coronavirus legislation. In order to prevent further harm, dedicated resources are needed through the programs and systems that are best positioned to immediately help children, youth, and families experiencing homelessness, and ensure their long-term stability.
  2. Right now, the narrow definition of homelessness used by housing agencies keeps children and youth invisible, and prevents collaboration among systems. It is a non-sensical, bureaucratic definition that doesn’t match the lived reality for youth and families, and hides the harms they experience. Ultimately, it perpetuates homelessness. The Homeless Children and Youth Act, HR 1511, would change this by amending the housing definition of homelessness to align with the education definition. Not only would this allow some of the most vulnerable children and youth to be assessed and served, it would give communities a true picture of the extent of homelessness among youth and families, and more flexibility to use homelessness funding to meet local needs. It is a desperately needed “upstream” solution.
  3. In order to have the strongest chance of success, and obtain a job that pays enough to afford housing, youth need some kind of education beyond high school. While we’ve made great progress in early childhood and K-2 education, higher education does not yet have protections and supports in place for youth who are homeless or have come from foster care. The Higher Education Access and Success Act for Homeless and Foster Youth, S. 789, H.R. 1724, removes many barriers to higher education for homeless and foster youth — barriers that we see every single day with our students. It would help ensure that these youth benefit from college access programs, have access to financial aid without burdensome and prohibitive documentation, and receive the support they need to stay in school and graduate.

I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?

On some days, rage and indignation — at how homelessness prevents children and youth from becoming whoever they want to be, at the apologists who defend broken systems and bankrupt paradigms, at the fundamental cowardice of “leaders” on both sides of the aisle. On other days, deep connection to, respect for, and inspiration from the educators and providers in our network who are moving mountains in their communities, making real and lasting change. And on other days still — most days, in fact — genuine love for children and youth, and genuine hope as I watch the young people in our scholarship program conquer their past and build their futures. They are worth it. All of it.

Do you have hope that one day this great social challenge can be solved completely?

I don’t know that there will be a day where this great social challenge is solved completely. Child, youth, and family homelessness is the result of many different systemic issues and personal factors. But what I do know is that no child or youth should ever have to live without a home or basic needs; every child deserves the opportunity to succeed. We should be working together — policymakers, educators, service providers, agencies, and more — to build better systems and drive solutions that get at the root causes of these issues. By centering children, youth, and education in solutions to homelessness, we can get ahead of this challenge and prevent more children from struggling as adults.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. “You will always cry.” I used to get embarrassed at my open display of emotions — sorrow, joy, sorrow again. I used to think that maybe I’d get it under control, maybe I’d get used to the stories I hear from educators, providers, parents, youth. I wish someone had told me it’s just how I’m wired. But fortunately I learned from a close colleague, a homeless school district liaison in Alaska who modeled the best professional cry behavior. She just keeps talking through her tears, never missing a beat, her tears functioning as an involuntary physical adjustment to maintain her emotional balance, like shivering when a cold breeze comes through. It’s healthy, it’s who we are. I care much less if my crying makes other people uncomfortable. Homelessness should make us all uncomfortable.
  2. “Homelessness is an industry, complete with industry lobbyists, investors, and propagandists.” I began my career at the National Coalition for the Homeless, under the tutelage of the legendary homeless activist Michael Stoops. The orientation at NCH was very much of grassroots organizing — working directly with service providers and others on the frontlines, as well as people directly impacted by homelessness. It took a while to perceive that these grassroots service providers were separate from — and often at the mercy of — a larger apparatus of funders and industry advocates who have great influence inside and outside government, and who are fundamentally disconnected from local and personal realities of homelessness. The best example of this is the staunch industry opposition to aligning the housing definition of homelessness with the education definition to match the lived realities/vulnerabilities of children, youth, and families. Even now, the industry opposes change — despite research confirming the vulnerabilities for homeless children and youth, regardless of where they sleep; despite strong support from the professionals who are working directly with children, youth, and families who meet both definitions; despite billions of dollars being appropriated for homelessness in connection with COVID-19, and billions more proposed; and despite even higher risks for children and youth who are forced to stay with others and in motels. If I had understood how deeply entrenched, tightly controlled, and powerfully established industries are — and that homelessness is an industry — I would have adopted different tactics sooner. Certainly, I would have spent less time trying to persuade people whose ties to the industry are too strong.
  3. “The good guys aren’t always good.” After college, I started out with an assumption that Republicans always would be obstacles, and Democrats always would be allies. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is not an issue that breaks cleanly along party lines. Far from it. The three greatest fights of my career — opposing separate schools for children experiencing homelessness; preventing the child welfare system from abandoning its responsibility on educational outcomes; and reforming the HUD homeless system to recognize and respond to child and youth homelessness — have not been partisan battles. Even now, in an incredibly polarized, divided political landscape, one can’t make assumptions about where legislators stand on issues related to children, youth, and families experiencing homelessness. Realpolitik is so much more nuanced. Personally, I embraced independent status in the mid-1990s. Professionally, I wish I would have found this pragmatism sooner.
  4. “Many things can be true at once.” Earlier in my career, I was prone to over-simplification; advocates naturally prioritize the issue they think they understand the best. But my direct relationships with young people, over time, have led me to embrace complexity. The personal and the systemic are interwoven: it is both the piling on of broken systems, and the decisions that adults make, that result in child and youth homelessness. Oversimplification makes for good slogans (like “housing ends homelessness”), but addressing one aspect of a complex problem doesn’t solve it, and also sidelines some of the players (like early childhood and public schools) that have the most to contribute. In our work, we strive to connect early childhood to K-12; K-12 to higher education; higher education to early childhood; and all to housing, health, and other services. The nodes between systems are leverage points for connecting these dots.
  5. “Hazy goals produce hazy results.” My 8th grade English teacher wrote those words on the top of a writing assignment. The purported goal of “ending homelessness” or reaching “functional zero” is an example of a very hazy goal that had produced tragically unintended results. At SHC, we’ve opted for clear goals around early childhood enrollment and participation, high school graduation, and postsecondary attainment, with interim measures in each area, to advance long-term change. Keeping a laser-like focus on those goals, which are tied to so many other measures of well-being (including housing stability), helps us achieve meaningful, powerful results.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Listening. We have lost the ability to truly, deeply listen to people whose views and experiences are not our own. We’ve closed ourselves off into toxic echo-chambers, surrounding ourselves with people who affirm our views and confirm our biases. Progress on social issues like homelessness requires being able to hear out people with opposing views, and adopt a solution-oriented mindset. It also requires listening to people who have experienced homelessness — including and especially children and parents. For all the emphasis on ‘centering people with lived experience’ in homelessness advocacy, it is shocking how rarely that includes children and their parents, and how rarely what they say is heeded. There is more “youth voice” in homelessness advocacy now than ever before, which is great, but children and parents are missing.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My mother is full of life lesson quotes. “You never know until you try,” and “The worst they can say is no,” are two of my mother’s mantras that helped me get over my childhood bashfulness, and helped pave the way toward advocacy.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I am a Muppet fanatic. Being an advisor to Sesame Street Workshop continues to be a highlight of my career, especially working on the content for the family homelessness initiative, which features Lily, a seven-year-old muppet experiencing homelessness. I never got to meet Lily “in person,” and I would love to do so. Lily is an ambassador of hope for children all over the country. Just as profoundly, she has helped adults see homelessness through the eyes of a child. I’d love to make ribbon bracelets with Lily, paint rainbows with her (adding lots of purple, her favorite color), and give her a great big hug to say “thank you” for being so brave and sharing her experiences.

How can our readers follow you online?




This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis: How Barbara Duffield & SchoolHouse Connection Are Helping People To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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