Barrier-breaking bill for homeless youths clears first legislative hurdle
Image via City of Jacksonville

Jax Homeless camp
'Hopefully, (this is) clearing up a lot of the bureaucracy and just making sure they live a better life.'

Bipartisan legislation that would break down several barriers to education and social services for young people experiencing homelessness cleared the first of two Senate committees Tuesday with unanimous support.

The Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee OK’d a bill (SB 1708) by Republican Sen. Ileana Garcia of Miami that would make numerous changes to how Florida assists youths struggling with housing insecurity.

The bill, to which Democratic Rep. Marie Woodson of Hollywood filed an identical House companion (HB 1577), still must pass through the Senate Appropriations Committee before reaching the floor. Woodson’s version awaits the first of three hearings in the Legislature’s lower chamber.

The measure would require the Department of Health to waive all fees for certified birth certificate copies for unaccompanied homeless youths and young adults who were in foster care when turning 18.

It would also open access to college, university, technical school and other postsecondary education liaisons to students who experience homelessness, in addition to serving current or former foster children. To accommodate for the expanded need, the bills would remove a current state rule that the Department of Children and Families has the sole discretion to determine which state colleges and universities offer campus liaison positions.

Further, the bill would require district school boards to provide homeless youths with a card containing information on their living situation, rights and benefits, among other details. The measure would enable those who meet specific requirements entry to the Keys to Independence Program, which pays education, registration and licensure costs for children in out-of-home care who seek driver’s licenses.

As of Dec. 31, more than 6,800 applicants have enrolled in the Keys to Independence Program. Of that, 1,902 have earned learner’s permits and 1,020 secured driver’s licenses, according to a House staff analysis of Garcia’s bill.

“Hopefully, (this is) clearing up a lot of the bureaucracy and just making sure they live a better life,” Garcia said. “As elected officials … our responsibility is to make sure that we protect and nurture generations of people (so they) don’t spend their adult lives recovering from their childhoods.”

In accordance with the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, children who experience housing insecurity — homelessness, living doubled-up with relatives or friends, or similar situations — are eligible for a variety of educational and social services.

Florida law also exempts students who are homeless from having to pay tuition and fees at state colleges and universities, though many other associated costs — including transportation, textbooks, housing and food — aren’t covered.

Between 2007 and 2015, the number of Florida students in pre-kindergarten through high school who experienced homelessness more than doubled to 72,601. That’s according to a 2019 report by the University of Florida Shimberg Center for Housing Studies and Miami Homes for All. The report also found that students who experienced homelessness performed 56% worse than their securely housed peers on standardized state tests.

“These are the kids that are always falling behind academically,” Mark Zaher, a retired director of School Operations and Special Programs at Miami-Dade Public Schools, told Florida Politics last year. “They have a high percentage of kids in special education. Transitioning out of high school is a huge challenge for them. And yes, there’s assistance for those kids, but there’s a huge gap.”

The legislation by Garcia and Woodson would also require the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability to study the effectiveness of campus liaisons and local districts’ performance in delivering benefits and services required under the McKinney-Vento Act.

OPPAGA would then have to provide a report including recommendations for changes needed to improve delivery of those services.

Representatives from the Florida Coalition for Children, Florida’s Children First, Florida PTA and Florida Youth SHINE signaled support for the legislation.

Students experiencing homelessness suffer higher rates of attempted suicide, physical and sexual violence and pregnancy, said Karen Mazzola, a legislative committee chair for the Florida PTA.

“These youths are living in unstable, unsafe homes with situations without a parent or guardian, and they’re struggling to care for themselves,” she said. “Senate Bill 1708 will help alleviate some of those harmful impacts of homelessness by helping these youths work, study, stay healthy. It builds on existing state law to remove barriers … and these policies are moderate, simple, built on what’s already working in Florida and other states. Thank you for this bill.”

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.


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