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The formula for family stability [Commentary]

Nearly everyone agrees that education is the pathway out of poverty and that a stable family life is crucial to nurturing young children. Yet here in central Maryland, homelessness and family instability present barriers to academic success for too many kids.

Teachers, principals and school superintendents tell us that adverse student mobility — children being forced to change schools repeatedly through life circumstances, including homelessness — is among their most vexing problems in seeing children succeed in school. The best way to deal with homelessness, especially when young children are involved, is to prevent it.

Two years ago, United Way brought a national model developed by The Siemer Institute for Family Stability to central Maryland that's proving to be highly successful in reducing adverse student mobility in neighborhoods with high concentrations of evictions, including Brooklyn/Curtis Bay, Park Heights, East Side at Henderson Hopkins and West Side at Promise Heights, as well as Cockeysville and North Laurel. Consistent, intensive case management for families at risk of eviction combined with flexible financial support has been key to its success.

In Brooklyn/Curtis Bay, one of the first neighborhoods where this model was introduced, Ben Franklin High School welcomed a University of Maryland School of Social Work field instructor and graduate students to work within the walls of the school and identify students at risk of homelessness. These case managers are then able to connect parents to financial assistance to prevent imminent eviction; provide financial coaching, emotional support and other case management; and refer them to additional neighborhood resources. Through this process, families avoid crisis and their children remain on track with their educations.

Ben Franklin High School and University of Maryland School of Social Work are two examples of many partners working with United Way to improve conditions for families facing homelessness. Others include local governments and school systems, Associated Catholic Charities, Pathway Church of God, The Johns Hopkins University School of Education, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Promise Heights Initiative, Union Baptist Church, Neighbor-to-Neighbor and Family and Children Services. Since implementation in 2012, United Way has supported 131 families, preventing homelessness for 332 children.

Building on the success of the prevention model, United Way has introduced another program to help local families already experiencing homelessness avoid shelter and quickly regain housing.

United Way of Central Maryland's shelter diversion program combines best practices from around the country and is having excellent results in keeping families intact and out of shelters. To date, case managers have already placed 50 families with a total of 101 children into stable housing with declining rent subsidies. All families remain in their homes today.

Next year, as part of an $8.1 million investment in family stability across central Maryland, United Way will expand its programs in existing neighborhoods and will bring new services to Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties as well as Baltimore City.

Family stability and education go hand in hand. Teenage parents have an elevated risk of dropping out of school, never to return. Without a diploma, earning a living wage sufficient to support a family is nearly impossible in today's economy. So with increasing graduation rates as a primary goal, United Way and its partners will open a new Family Support Center at Ben Franklin High School. Although it will also serve families from the community, the center will primarily support teenage parents who are still attending Ben Franklin High School. It will integrate on-site day care for children younger than three years old, parenting classes, financial education, job readiness training and case management services. The center is expected to open this September so that these young parents, students themselves, will have the opportunity to start the school year and learn to be better parents simultaneously.

Homelessness and family instability pose real threats for adults and children alike across central Maryland. After all, it's difficult to do homework without a safe, stable place to call home.

Mark Furst is president and CEO of United Way of Central Maryland. His email is Mark.Furst@uwcm.org.


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