Lesson 6: Community Collaboration


In order to support families experiencing homelessness, it is important to revisit your relationships with community groups and organizations. Your aim is to create traditional, as well as nontraditional alliances in order to fully expand your options and support your ideas. In this lesson, you will:

  • Evaluate how community collaborations can support families experiencing homelessness;
  • Reflect on your current community collaborations and determine how they can support families experiencing homelessness; and
  • Broaden your connections in order to expand your ideas and alliances for supporting families experiencing homelessness.

Diana Bowman, Director of the National Center for Homeless Education, discusses community collaboration.

Watch the video [00:07:53] | Read the transcript

Diana Bowman discusses Community Collaboration

I'm Diana Bowman; I'm the Director of the National Center for Homeless Education.

Since the passage of the Head Start Act in 2007, we've been working to increase collaborative opportunities between the McKinney-Vento program and Head Start program. I'm pleased to offer information on ways Head Start can enhance its community collaborations.

In the work of serving homeless children, the concept of "it takes a village to raise a child" has never been more relevant. Homeless families and children generally have a wide range of needs that go far beyond the capacity of one agency to meet. So, it's important for each agency to be aware of all the resources available in the community, that way you can make referrals to ensure that there is a comprehensive approach to meeting the children's and families' needs.

For example, you might become aware of a family experiencing homelessness in your program, perhaps living in a doubled-up situation that isn't working out – and this happens frequently. The family may need alternative housing on very short notice. It's important to have contacts for resources to provide another option for housing. Or, a mom in your program who is experiencing homelessness may let you know that she needs food or clothing for her family. It would be important for you to be able to link her quickly with other agencies.

More than just linking families with services, though, community partnerships provide a way to pool resources and plan systemically. Partnerships allow you to minimize duplication of efforts and make sure gaps in services do not exist. Many communities have homeless coalitions or task forces that develop strategic plans. They develop the plans to take into account all needs and resources and to use their resources collaboratively and more efficiently. In particular, you might want to look into whether your community has a Housing and Urban Development Continuum of Care program.

If your Head Start program has not historically identified or served many homeless children, one of your first partners should be the local homeless liaison in the school district where your program is located. Local homeless liaisons have been required in school districts for almost 10 years, and have identified resources, developed community partnerships, and referral procedures for children experiencing homelessness. It's always easier to start from a foundation that has already been established.

Requirements to develop community partnerships are included in the Head Start Act. Specifically, the law says that community-wide strategic planning must involve federal, state, and local agencies. The types of services for children and families to evolve out of these partnerships include:

  • Family support services;
  • Child abuse prevention and protective services;
  • Foster care;
  • Services for families who don't speak English;
  • Services for children with disabilities; and, particularly relevant,
  • Services for homeless children.

There is a notable emphasis in the law on Head Start programs connecting with the local educational agency, and specifically with the local homeless liaison. Because both Head Start and McKinney-Vento programs are mandated to serve homeless children, there is a logical overlap of resources and services. Developing a strong partnership between Head Start and McKinney-Vento is a practical way to enhance the capacity of both programs.

To build collaboration with the local homeless liaison, Head Start programs can invite the local liaison to serve on the Head Start Policy Council as a community representative. In addition, Head Start staff may want to invite the local liaison to offer training on the needs of homeless children and services offered through the McKinney-Vento program. And in turn, you could offer to provide training to the school system personnel on Head Start and Early – Early Head Start services.

Some Head Start and McKinney-Vento programs have a Memorandum of Agreement that allows for sharing data and information on homeless families. Some programs agree to share enrollment forms so that a Head Start program enrolling a young child can provide a school enrollment form if the family also has school-aged children, and then provide this form to the local liaison to follow up. And this same process could occur with the local liaison to provide enrollment information to a Head Start program.

Also, keep in mind the importance of working with your Head Start State Collaboration director. By coordinating with agencies at the state level, your Head Start Collaboration director enhances collaboration and coordination of Head Start services relating to homeless children and families. There's a list of Head Start Collaboration directors on the Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center, also known as ECLKC, under Collaboration Offices.

Some partnerships that serve homeless children will initially exist just to increase awareness of the needs of homeless children and families. They make sure that staff members at the partnering organization know whom to contact to refer homeless families and children. These partnerships can grow into more collaborative initiatives to coordinate services.

Research and good practice in the area of community collaboration suggest that partnerships must be grown over time. These initial connections can be nurtured into relationships based on common goals, trust, and respect. Needless to say, collaboration takes a significant investment of time and effort. But in the end, a successful collaboration can expand your agency's capacity and resources, and in that regard, ultimately saves time.

It's worthwhile to continually revisit existing partnerships to determine if there are new and more strategic ways to coordinate services. Needs change, staff change, and priorities change. It's important to share and discuss data on needs related to homeless families and children with other organizations, and to keep homeless children and families on the radar screen.

Conducting community outreach for serving homeless families and children is a new activity for many Head Start programs. It's important to think strategically and make sure you have a purpose for each type of connection or partnership you pursue. For example, there are some partnerships in which an organization needs, first of all, to know what kind of services Head Start provides for homeless children. You might want to develop a brochure or packet of information that will peak the organization's interest and willingness to be involved.

If your purpose is to share resources, it's important to approach an organization with data that show a need, then make the case that a collaborative relationship will expand both your and its program's capacity. This approach will entail becoming familiar with the organization's goals and priorities. This type of partnership is one that may need to grow over time with repeated contact and information sharing. One of our favorite mantras in the homeless education world is that of "gentle pressure, relentlessly applied." So, don't give up if there isn't tremendous buy-in on the first visit.

I would encourage you to become a member of any strategic planning task forces on homelessness that exist in your community. Having a voice at the table to speak on behalf of young children experiencing homelessness is critical. Representation from Head Start can focus attention on the impact that homelessness has on child development and the challenges that homeless parents with young children face, such as – in the areas of child care and transportation. Remember, Head Start is an important player in addressing homelessness.

Why This Lesson is Important

Head Start and Early Head Start serve families within the context of the community and recognizes that many community agencies and groups are available to support Head Start and Early Head Start families.

In order to fervently respond to families in homeless situations it is imperative that programs build on relationships within the communities they serve.

Should you join a coalition...begin a support group...initiate an advisory committee...partner with shelters for families in homeless situations? Analysis of your community assessment can help pinpoint the next steps for your program's response to homelessness. After your next steps have been determined, this lesson provides targeted strategies to support your success.

Whatever your program deems necessary to support families experiencing homelessness the Head Start Program Performance Standards state:

Grantee and delegate agencies must take affirmative steps to establish ongoing collaborative relationships with community organizations to promote the access of children and families to community services that are responsive to their needs, and to ensure that Early Head Start and Head Start programs respond to community needs, including:

Family preservation and support services

Advisory committees
...Grantee and delegate agencies also must establish and maintain such other service advisory committees as they deem appropriate to address program service issues such as community partnerships and to help agencies respond to community needs.

Community support is integral to the success of your program's work with families experiencing homelessness.

Lesson Guidelines

From the Community Collaboration lesson on the navigation bar at the top, select a story from the drop-down list. Use the tabs to move around as you wish. You may find it helpful to follow these steps:

  1. Read each story and think about how the community collaborations supported families experiencing homelessness. (Read the Story tab)
  2. Explore the information provided and gather ideas about collaborative alliances other programs have made that you might want to consider pursuing. (Explore Information tab)
  3. Use the worksheet provided to record your ideas for expanding your connections. You will use the same document several times during this lesson. (Expand Your Connections tab)
  4. Review the main points of this lesson.

Last Updated: January 6, 2017