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Kansas City, Kansas, schools found a creative way to cut student homelessness in half. Here's how

Steffani Baker stands in the chapel at nonprofit Avenue of Life. The organization helped Baker and her five children find a home after living in a hotel in Kansas City, Kansas.
Jodi Fortino
KCUR 89.3
Steffani Baker stands in the chapel at nonprofit Avenue of Life. The organization helped Baker and her five children find a home after living in a hotel in Kansas City, Kansas.

Impact KCK in the Kansas City, Kansas school district is a national model for how communities can address student homelessness by bringing different organizations and resources together to connect families to stable housing, jobs and other services.

Steffani Baker and her five children started this school year living in a hotel in Kansas City, Kansas. They’d left Arkansas after a tornado demolished their home.

“We lost everything, me and my kids,” Baker said.

When staff at Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools found out Baker and her children didn’t have permanent housing, they arranged for transportation services to ensure the kids were able to make it to school. They connected the family with Impact KCK, a collaborative effort of the school district and social service agencies to address student homelessness by helping families find permanent housing and other services.

Six months into the school year, Baker is now in a rental home with a new car.

The Center for Public Integrity (CPI), a nonprofit investigative journalism organization, recently published data that shows thousands of students in and around Kansas City meet the U.S. Department of Education’s definition of homelessness — even as some districts appear to be undercounting the population.

Almost 900 students were identified as homeless in the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools in the 2019-20 school year, according to the CPI data. It’s not uncommon for school districts to identify homeless students as making up 5% of their overall enrollments, or even more.

Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools is recognized locally and nationally for its effective approach to pulling families out of homelessness. Since it launched in 2015, the Impact KCK program has found permanent housing for more than 500 families, served more than 1,600 families and helped 449 families find employment.

Student homelessness in Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools fell nearly 50% between August 2015 and January 2018, according to a program assessment.

Baker was astounded early on when Impact KCK gave her an Uber card so she could get to work when her car began having issues. When Baker became sick and couldn’t work, the program paid her hotel fees for a couple of weeks.

Right before Christmas, she got the best news of all — the program had found a landlord willing to rent a home to her. Because Impact KCK furnished the home and paid the first month’s rent, Baker was able to buy a working car.

“I've really honestly have not had help at this scale, ever,” Baker said. “I'm still getting teary-eyed because it's amazing. It was a blessing.”

How does a “collective impact model” work?

Impact KCK credits its success to a “collective impact model,” based on the idea that some social issues are too complex for a single organization to tackle. It provides a framework to coordinate different organizations from different sectors in order to solve a problem, with the nonprofit Avenue of Life serving as the effort’s leading “backbone agency.”

When the school district identifies a family experiencing housing instability, it refers them to Avenue of Life to be connected with case workers called navigators. They work with the family until their youngest child graduates from high school.

One of the program’s hallmarks is its “Impact Wednesdays,” where it brings together everything from health care and mental health services to employment opportunities under one roof.

Todd Powers, Avenue of Life's nutrition specialist, prepares lunches for families that attend Impact Wednesdays.
Jodi Fortino
KCUR 89.3
Todd Powers, Avenue of Life's nutrition specialist, prepares lunches for families that attend Impact Wednesdays.

Navigators work ahead of the weekly events to ensure families qualify for the services they need before they walk into the Avenue of Life facility.

“It's a customized approach that is done with the navigators and the partners so that the experience for the family is really a ‘yes’ experience,” said Desiree Monize, Avenue of Life’s executive director. “What we see in a few weeks of this approach is them removing dozens of barriers and able to then focus on housing and moving forward and stabilizing their situation.”

Wyandotte County has limited affordable housing, so caseworkers build relationships with landlords so they feel safe renting to one of the program’s families and commit to keeping rent at an affordable rate.

The program also works to help parents find jobs with a livable wage by looking at options for vocational training or continuing their education.

The goal of the program is to have the backbone agency work with other local programs to meet families’ needs outside school so the district can focus on educating students.

Replicating the model beyond Kansas City

At least four area school districts are using variations of Kansas City, Kansas' collective impact model to assist families with school-age children who are homeless or on the verge.

Seven years ago, the Shawnee Mission School District initiated Project Home, a collaborative effort among the school district and multiple social service agencies and faith groups.

The program helps with one-time rent or utility payments, reliable meals and laundry service, mental health care for students and adults and job-hunting help or legal advice for parents. Similar to Impact KCK, Project Home provides twice monthly opportunities for families to access multiple services all in one place.

Project Home has assisted 335 families since its founding. Of that number, 74 families secured housing and 261 families received services to prevent them from becoming unhoused.

In the beginning, the program focused on students and families who met the standard of homelessness set by the federal McKinney-Vento Act, said Shawnee Mission’s homelessness liaison, David Aramovich.

“What we learned in our first year was that we could prevent many families and students from becoming McKinney-Vento if we were able to provide preventative services,” he said.

As in Kansas City, Kansas, case workers at Project Home try to get families pre-approved for services.

“We have to do a thorough vetting process before we invite participants to come to Project Home as we don’t want to offer false hope,” he said. “Many of the individuals who attend Project Home often hear the word ‘no.’ Project Home is designed to say ‘yes.’”

The Olathe School District teamed up with multiple community partners in 2017 to create Impact Olathe. Since then it has referred 760 families to the program.

At the start, the school district mostly referred families in the McKinney-Vento program to its community partners, said district community liaison Heather Schoonover. Now, agencies call her office to ask about getting families into the school district’s McKinney-Vento program.

“It is exciting that partners continue to annually be at the table to support our students and their parents,” she said.

Terry DeMoss and Regina Casares sit at a table at Impact Wednesday, waiting to connect families with social services.
Jodi Fortino
KCUR 89.3
Terry DeMoss and Regina Casares sit at a table at Impact Wednesday, waiting to connect families with social services.

Small districts with high poverty

In south Kansas City, the Center and Hickman Mills school districts announced in 2019 that they would initiate versions of Impact programs. Both are small districts with high percentages of students whose families are impoverished and vulnerable to housing instability.

“The main goal for us is to help families get out of crisis and into self-sufficiency,” said Kevin Jean-Paul, a social worker who directs the Impact Center Schools program on behalf of its leading partner agency, Serve the World Charities.

Impact Center has worked extensively with 33 families over four years. Its first task is to get people into safe, affordable housing. Few landlords in the Center School District’s boundaries accept tenants with Section 8 subsidy vouchers from the Housing Authority of Kansas City, Jean-Paul said. Without a subsidy, rents are simply too high for many families.

Serve the World Charities’ initial plan was to purchase housing units for its families and essentially act as a landlord. But after taking possession of two homes, the two-person staff recognized that property management was more than they’d bargained for.

“As people say, ‘stay in your lane,’” said Stephanie Boydston, the charity’s executive director. “We’re good at helping families. We’re going to continue doing that and work with the people who are really successful at being property managers.”

Once a family has safe housing, Jean-Paul works to get parents to emotional and financial stability so that they can help their children succeed in school. Impact Center has assembled a coalition of partners to help in a variety of ways; one partner equips parents with vehicles so they can get to work and school activities.

“For us, it’s about so much more than just a house,” Jean-Paul said. “It’s about life skills. We talk all the time about the difference between existing and living. If you just exist paycheck to paycheck, you’re just trying to survive. Living is being plugged into what you want to do in your life for you and your kids.”

Boydston and Jean-Paul made another major adjustment as their program evolved. When families move out of the Center School District — often because they can’t find housing within its boundaries — they are invited to remain in Impact Center for an additional school year.

Families who continue to live in the Center School District can access Impact Center’s services until their youngest child graduates from high school, Jean-Paul said. Of the 33 families in the program so far, nearly 80% were still living in stable housing after a year.

Boydston advises agencies and school districts wanting to design similar partnerships is to have steady funding in place and to hire a master’s level licensed social worker with a passion for working with people.

“The final piece would be the way you present it to families,” she said. “Because some families think, ‘oh, somebody’s going to pay my bills.’ And that’s not quite it. We’re trying to break the cycle of poverty.”

Like the Center School District, the Impact program in Hickman Mills has struggled to find local landlords who will accept Section 8 vouchers from families.

Another barrier for its families is transportation. After finding that families were having difficulties getting to weekly events at the backbone organization, L.I.F.T. Inc., organizers moved the events online.

L.I.F.T executive director Taniesha Ngugi describes the Hickman Mills impact program as one in its “infancy” compared to Avenue of Life. But she can claim some early successes. Just this school year, Impact Hickman Mills found stable homes for seven families. The program served 40 families in the 2020-2021 school year and 25 more the following year.

The program is limited by how many families it can serve with a small staff. It’s currently run by just Ngugi and a case worker — and they serve up to 60 clients a day. Ngugi says Impact Hickman Mills doesn’t have a lot of funding, and more of it would allow her to hire more employees and help remove financial barriers for families.

Danyca Singleton, head of student services and McKinney-Vento coordinator at Hickman Mills, says the district also has to overcome families’ distrust when it offers help.

“Our parents have been ostracized and also shunned when it comes to the need for support,” Singleton said. “Oftentimes, what we know in the community is that funding is exhausted by the end of the month so when families are in need, sometimes those community resources don't have the funds to help support them.”

A scarcity of affordable housing around Kansas City

The greatest obstacle for the collective impact programs is the same factor that brings families to them in the first place — the scarcity of affordable housing around Kansas City.

“The national trend is the lack of affordable housing and livable wages. That’s been the elephant in the room for years now,” Aramovich said. “We’re going in a negative trajectory here in Johnson County.”

One Shawnee Mission parent he’s working with recently saw her rent increased by $400 a month after living in the same place for eight years, Aramovich said.

“Consequently, she was living in her car when we met her,” he said. “More and more people who have been successfully housed for years are losing their housing because their landlords are able to get higher rent and there’s no protections for keeping housing affordable.”

Once families have more stability, they say their kids are able to thrive at school.

Steffani Baker, the parent in Kansas City, Kansas, said her children are all getting A's and B's and her middle schooler is on the student council.

“She's leading that,” Baker said. “She wouldn't’ve been able to do that if I didn't have this program because we would've been moving again.”

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
Barbara Shelly is a freelance reporter and editor based in Kansas City, Missouri.
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