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HISD

Homeless Office cuts, Wraparound Services shift and Sunrise skepticism — what is Houston ISD doing for unhoused families?

In Houston ISD, a program intended to meet the basic needs of students is shifting focus from food access to truancy and dropout prevention. The changes come on the heels of a major reduction in the size of HISD’s Homeless Services Office, from 40 workers to 12. Even with a $12 million investment in the new Sunrise Center initiative, some community members worry that HISD is on the wrong path. 

HISD sunrise center
Houston ISD via Facebook
An HISD Sunrise Center at Morefield Boy & Girls Club

Just west of downtown Houston, near the northern bank of the Buffalo Bayou, Alissa McCulloch is in recovery mode after a few years of bad luck. She and her two kids landed here, in a transitional housing apartment, last year.

"It’s very quiet," she said. "It’s very secure. I like it. I’m used to the area ... I know my city, you know, kind of like the back of my hand."

In September 2022, McCulloch and her children lost their housing. She had taken lower-paying work that required less travel so she could be closer to her retired mother, and she was unable to afford expensive repairs after her landlord refused to address flood damage.

"There’s no way here in Houston ... that I can make it with two children off of $10 an hour," she said.

Her truck broke down, and she lost that job. The family moved to a hotel with help from a charity, then to this transitional apartment building in May towards the end of last school year. Fortunately, their apartment is within walking distance to almost everything her family needs — except for school.

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That shouldn't be a problem because, under federal law, families who don't have permanent housing are entitled to transportation to and from school. With help from the Houston ISD Homeless Services Office, McCulloch's kids had no problems with transportation last school year.

"Fast forward to August: My son did not get transportation until three weeks of being in school," McCulloch said. "I was calling HISD — was calling actually the main numbers that I knew from previous months ... and I’m not reaching anyone."

There are fewer people to reach these days. According to information we obtained through a public records request, the number of staffers in Houston ISD's Homeless Services Office has dropped dramatically. This time last year, there were 40 staffers. Now, there are 12.

"They were running around like chickens with their heads cut off because, you know, they don’t have any help," McCulloch recalled. "I mean, I’m calling and I’m getting people saying, ‘I don’t know what department you’re talking about.' I’m like, ‘Excuse me, I know I just spoke to these people just in April, in May, towards the end of the school year. How do you guys not know what I’m talking about?'"

This isn't the only HISD office affected by changes under the state-appointed administration. The Wraparound Services Department also has a new mandate.

Before January, wraparound workers focused on food access and programs that meet students' basic needs on a campus-by-campus basis. Now, according to a document we obtained, the department is shifting focus to truancy and dropout prevention. One wraparound worker, who requested anonymity, said they're "basically truancy officers" now.

"We're not here just for food access, as important as that is," state-appointed superintendent Mike Miles said. "It’s not mutually exclusive. They're working on food access. They're working on clothing. They're working on getting kids to the Sunrise Center."

Houston ISD has held up the Sunrise Center initiative as a shining example of its commitment to unhoused and low-income families who have unmet basic needs. The program includes eight locations where families can access basic resources, like mental health services and before and after school care. The new leaders have sunk $12 million into the initiative, including the launch of seven locations over the past half year.

Wraparound specialists have been told to refer families to the Sunrise Centers for help with basic resources. Chief Academic Officer Kristen Hole said the programs will complement one another.

"You need to have real-time, just-in-time support for students through our wraparound supports," Hole said. "The Sunrise Centers will allow us to run initiatives on a broader scale, more like a hub and spoke model. You can do bigger things more at scale when you have hubs to help support with that."

HISD used research from the Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC) while designing the Sunrise program.

‘"So we said ‘Okay, that's great, but now you need to know if that was the right thing,'" said HERC director Erin Baumgartner from Rice University, pointing to a list of open questions, like "If the right resources are in the right places where we need them, if students and families are accessing them, and how they're feeling about whether their needs are being met."

Baumgartner said HERC is partnering with HISD to find answers.

"The idea is getting the district that information as soon as possible, so they can use it to tweak things, adjust, course, course correct and better serve students," she said.

Newly sworn-in school board trustee Savant Moore — who does not hold power because of the TEA-appointed management board — wants to see expanded investment in wraparound services on each campus, rather than the concentration of resources into eight locations across the more than 300-square-mile district.

"I live in Fifth Ward," Moore said. "We do live in a food desert. How many grocery stores are there accessible for healthy food? We also live in a broadband desert. These children don’t have Wi-Fi access to do their work. There’s also socio-economic issues. People don’t have that income ... I know there’s a Sunrise Center, but there’s a transportation issue. They may not be able to get to the Sunrise Center, so we need to reach them at the school."

Parent Alissa McCulloch had never heard of a Sunrise Center until she read a Houston Public Media story towards the end of December.

Things are looking up for McCulloch, though — in part because of help from Houston ISD. We reached her just as she got off her third shift as a bus driver. One of the 12 remaining staffers in the homeless office helped her find an open position with the transportation department.

"I am ecstatic," she said. "I’m happy that I am working."

McCulloch has mixed feelings. She's grateful that she got help, but also skeptical that other families will get what they need. The numbers are stark — 8 Sunrise locations across more than 300 square miles; twelve staffers in the homeless office of a district with more than 6,000 unhoused students who need help.

"How can 12 people assist 6,000 homeless families?" McCulloch asked. "To me, that’s impossible. That’s a lot. That backlog will be huge, you know, it will be so long to where it will take these people a while to get to these families."