Surge in Homeless Pupils Strains Schools

From the New York Times

Surge in Homeless Pupils Strains Schools

While current national data are not available, the number of schoolchildren in homeless families appears to have risen by 75 percent to 100 percent in many districts over the last two years, according to Barbara Duffield, policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, an advocacy group.

There were 679,000 homeless students reported in 2006-7, a total that surpassed one million by last spring, Ms. Duffield said.

With schools just returning to session, initial reports point to further rises. In San Antonio, for example, the district has enrolled 1,000 homeless students in the first two weeks of school, twice as many as at the same point last year.

“It’s hard enough going to school and growing up, but these kids also have to worry where they’ll be staying that night and whether they’ll eat,” said Bill Murdock, chief executive of Eblen-Kimmel Charities, a private group in Asheville that helps needy families with anything from food baskets and money for utility bills to toiletries and a prom dress.

“We see 8-year-olds telling Mom not to worry, don’t cry,” Mr. Murdock said.

Since 2001, federal law has required every district to appoint a liaison to the homeless, charged with identifying and aiding families who meet a broad definition of homelessness — doubling up in the homes of relatives or friends or sleeping in motels or RV campgrounds as well as living in cars, shelters or on the streets. A small minority of districts, including Buncombe County, have used federal grants or local money to make the position full time.

The law lays out rights for homeless children, including immediate school placement without proof of residence and a right to stay in the same school as the family is displaced. Providing transportation to the original school is an expensive logistical challenge in a huge district like Buncombe County, covering 700 square miles.

While the law’s goals are widely praised, school superintendents lament that Congress has provided little money, adding to the fiscal woes of districts. “The protections are important, but Congress has passed the cost to state and local taxpayers,” said Bruce Hunter, associate director of the American Association of School Administrators.

This story made me cry.  In Saskatoon the accepted number of kids not in school is 1500.  I have talked to teachers and educators and while they all say it’s probably a bit higher or lower, they never seem to mind when we use it as a starting point for discussions.  While many of those kids are out of school because of parental choices and slipping through the cracks, some of them are out of school because of no permanent address at all.  They move between Saskatoon, Regina, P.A., or for some, the reserve.  They get into school for a bit and then are off to the next destination and as I have educators tell me, this is devastating to the child and makes learning almost impossible.  I have heard a couple of teachers say that they have experienced over 100% turnover during a school year which not only is hard on the kids moving in and out but those who stay.  Who do you chose to be your friends when they may be gone tomorrow.  Without a home, stability, education, and emotional development are all deeply affected.

Mark keeps asking me about the women and family shelter the Centre is opening.  His questions all focus on where are the kids going to go to school.  The shelter is to be a short term emergency shelter for those that are homeless.  Women can spend a couple of weeks there before moving on to the YWCA or other transitional housing.  You can spend a couple of months in those places before you move on to another place or get an apartment.  Let’s review that journey.  Homeless > Salvation Army > YWCA/transitional housing.  A kid could spend a couple of months before getting established again and what’s the impact of that their future.  Childhood homelessness is devastating and takes years to recover from.  If there was a place for a church to invest a significant amount of effort into, this would seem to be it.

As you can see from this video, not all school systems are doing that well in helping out and some are even blocking homeless kids.

This story really depresses me.  Not just because I get frustrated with a system that doesn’t value homeless people but when you read the Report Card on Child Homelessness,  Delaware, Oregon, and Wisconsin report few or no barriers to educating homeless children (kudos to them) but then it gets a lot worse. Nearly 86% of subgrantees in Kentucky report that all seven barriers listed in the report were big barriers to getting an education.  Hawaii, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire also have a high percentage of subgrantees reporting significant barriers.

The federal government provides states $58 million to support the education of children who are homeless. For each state, they convert their portion of this funding into a “per homeless child” figure based on the number of homeless children identified in each state. For example, Louisiana receives $6 per homeless child for education, while Rhode Island receives $304 per homeless child. In California child funding is $16 per child. The national average is $64 per homeless child (although this year that is going down)

By comparison we spend about $65.00 (Canadian) this year on Mark’s school supplies (you can see his school supply list here.  He’s in Grade 4).  With that we got him a couple of things he didn’t need but at the same time he still loved his backpack from 2007-2008 and didn’t want a new one which saved us $20.  Him and I were talking today and he said that there are kids in his class that don’t have stuff for school yet and we are a week into it already.

Of course despite there being a million kids who are homeless, how many are struggling tremendously with heading back to school.  This year in Canada, Sleep Country partnered with the Salvation Army in collecting school supplies to send kids back to school.  Locally our board room was packed to the gills with school supplies.  I was going to take a photo of it for this post but when I got my camera, most of it was gone as we had such a waiting list of families who live at or below the poverty line for these supplies.

This represents a big opportunity for the church to make a difference in a neighborhood.  I know Christmas is a big deal but back to school is a big cost for many low income families and the need is bigger than the Salvation Army, Sleep Country, or any organization can deal with on their own.

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