Homeless students a growing concern for school districts

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Rev. Deborah Young has met scores of homeless children in her time in ministry to the poor, but the face she just can't seem to shake is of the 6-year-old boy who begged to stay.

"This mother had six children, and they were living in a van and this particular child had been in the van for two weeks," said Young, director of New Life Evangelical Ministry Homeless Outreach Center and Thrift Store at 707 Broadway. "And he was so tired that he asked me, 'Can I stay with you tonight?' I let them stay for as long as I could."

The maximum tenancy at the small emergency shelter is two weeks, barring a special circumstance. There's typically more need than beds. On Friday, Young was making arrangements for another single mother and her two school-aged children.

Young and other advocates of the homeless in Southeast Missouri say they have seen a growing number of displaced families in recent years -- the result of recession and the wounded economy it left behind, a record number of foreclosures and the usual culprits of domestic violence and addiction.

And educators say Southeast Missouri is seeing a surge in homeless students, a group of children more prone to hunger, failure and hopelessness than their peers.

The Cape Girardeau School District was serving 47 homeless students as of late February, according to Deena Ring, the district's director of special services. Ring said the numbers are at record levels this school year.

In the Jackson School District, 50 students were identified as homeless in January, up from 27 in the 2009-2010 school year, according to Beth Emmendorfer, the district's associate superintendent of student services.

Statewide, 15,564 homeless children were enrolled in Missouri's public schools last year, up 3 percent from 2008-2009 but up nearly 30 percent from 2007-2008, according the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

There is dispute over the numbers, and much of that has to do with definition. In Southeast Missouri -- a 10-county area including Cape Girardeau, Bollinger and Perry counties -- the number of total homeless was reported at 185 in July, according to the Governor's Committee to End Homelessness. But in 2008, at the beginning of the most crippling U.S. recession in decades, there were an estimated 30,478 homeless children in Missouri, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. The not-for-profit center's 2009 report, "America's Youngest Outcasts: State Report Card on Child Homelessness," found that more than 1.5 million children were homeless in the United States, or one in every 50.

Defining homelessness is the trick. By certain guidelines, homelessness means literally being dispossessed of a dwelling. The federal McKinney-Vento Act, which outlines the rights of homeless children, defines child homelessness as "children and unaccompanied youth who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence."

In short, the homeless, under the law, aren't just those who live under a bridge or in an abandoned garage; children who are moved from one place to the next, for instance, are considered displaced, even though they may have a roof over their heads.

Natalie Sandoval, master's level social worker for the Community Caring Council, said the numbers of homeless and homeless students in Cape Girardeau are higher than are being reported, and they are growing. She said the figures are difficult track.

"You never get everyone out there, you never get the people doubling up, or those who are couch bouncing or couch surfing. We see a lot of that," Sandoval said.

There is a good deal of fear and myth in the homeless community, Sandoval said, and that keeps many from coming forward and seeking help, much less standing up and being counted.

"They are afraid the state will get involved, that their children will be removed," Sandoval said, adding that the schools may not always be equipped to identify and handle homeless students.

Through the cracks

The numbers don't come as a surprise to Mike Cowan, principal at Cape Girardeau Central High School.

"There is no doubt we have seen a greater number of kids who are homeless or on the verge of becoming homeless," he said.

There's been a gathering storm of statistics underscoring deep pockets of poverty in the school district. The number of participants in the free-and-reduced meal program has soared over the past half-dozen years, with several schools posting figures above 80 percent. Mobility also is an indicator. Less than half of elementary students remain with the same teacher for the entire school year, according to the "Mobilization Plan for Ensuring the Success of Our Children," a report just issued by the United Way of Southeast Missouri Education Solutions Team.

Cowan has seen many forms of student displacement, including two high school teens found to be living in a car.

The teen homeless population is emerging as a considerable problem, Sandoval said. About 14,000 Missouri teens in grades 9 to 12 were considered homeless at one point in 2008, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness.

"When you are a teen, you're kind of in no man's land," Sandoval said. "It's an untouchable legal age. Landlords don't want to rent to them, and the state doesn't want to touch them. There's a liability there."

The problem is that there are few resources to assist these teens, she said. And they're typically not welcome at homeless shelters, where adults and small children are served.

Falling behind

Homelessness is a strong indicator of academic failure. Homeless children are an average 16 percent less proficient in math and reading, and less than 25 percent graduate from high school, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness.

"If you don't know where your next meal is going to come from or that you are safe, how are you concentrating on what's going on in your math class," Ring said.

Still, the Cape Girardeau school official said she doesn't think the national homeless student graduation rate applies to her school district. Of three homeless seniors she's worked with most recently, she said two have gone on to graduate.

The saddest thing, homeless advocates say, is displaced potential. Sandoval knows of one exemplary student in the area who recently has become homeless, months before graduation and the real possibility of post-secondary education.

That's why it's so important to have school policies that identify and assist homeless students quickly and effectively, educators say. It's also mandated under the McKinney-Vento Act. The law, which establishes federal grant funding for states, outlines what states must do to assist homeless students. Cape Girardeau and Jackson school districts have policies designed to help staff identify homeless students and connect them with services they and their families need. In Jackson, for instance, policy mandates homeless students automatically are entitled to free school lunches, and the district cannot require immunization records as an enrollment requirement.

"I know our social workers really are working closely with guidance counselors and principals to investigate that piece, and they are doing a better job identifying families," Jackson's Emmendorfer said.

Cowan said school is even more critical for displaced students. It is the one place where they can count on the comfort of routine.

"They can be warm and safe for six and a half hours. School really is a haven for those kids, who oftentimes during the day that is their only semblance of normalcy," he said.

With the housing market still weak and the economy sluggish, educators and social service officials don't see the numbers of homeless families and students easing anytime soon.

Sandoval said her office is seeing a growing number of people behind in their rent, close to eviction. And there are a growing number of people who have lost their housing and have run out of places to stay with family and friends.

"That says to me we're not done yet at all," she said. "Usually I'm not a pessimist but you have to look at the reality of what's going on."

mkittle@semissourian.com

388-3627

Pertinent address:

707 Broadway, Cape Girardeau MO

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