Published Online: December 2, 2009

Ind. Sees More Homeless Students as Economy Slumps

The number of Indiana public school students who are homeless has jumped in recent years — and is expected to climb further — as high foreclosure and unemployment rates leave more parents struggling to provide stable homes for their children.

During the 2005-2006 school year, Indiana public schools recorded 7,547 homeless students, according to an issue briefRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader released Wednesday by the Indiana Youth Institute. The number jumped to 8,249 the following year and to 8,480 during the 2007-2008 school year — marking a 12 percent increase over two years.

Those numbers do not include younger students who are not of school age or "unaccompanied youth" who are especially difficult to count because they are living on their own and often do not seek help from shelters.

Overall, an estimated 29,000 Indiana children of all ages are considered homeless, a term that covers a variety of living situations ranging from teenage runaways living under bridges to children and their parents living at a friend's home because of economic hardships.

The disturbing increase in homeless students is not surprising given the recent economic decline, but it puts those children at a distinct disadvantage, said Bill Stanczykiewicz, the president and CEO of the institute, a nonprofit agency that promotes the healthy development of children.

Students change schools on average more than 3 times while homeless and don't perform as well as their peers in stable homes, the institute said in its report, which aims to raise awareness of the problem.

"That has a lifelong impact," Stanczykiewicz said. "Once those children fall behind, it's so much more difficult for them. Homelessness can dig a hole academically that can last that child a lifetime."

The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act provides funding for states to help educate homeless students. Students qualify if they live in motels or shelters or if they have "doubled up" with family and friends because their families can't afford housing of their own. Students who run away from home or have been kicked out, pregnant teenagers without a place to live and those living on the streets also qualify for the program, which can provide transportation to school, free textbooks and exemptions from certain rules.

Community groups across the state are also trying to help homeless kids.

The School on Wheels in Indianapolis, for example, provides tutoring and homework help to K-12 students living in homeless shelters.

Founder and CEO Sally Bindley said the slumping economy has hit some families hard. Some parents who had been living paycheck to paycheck lost their jobs when the economy plummeted. Others were renters who lost their homes when their landlords went into foreclosure.

"You can tell this is the first time this has happened to them," she said. "They kind of got the rug pulled out from under them."

Parents scrambling for housing and a job don't have time to sit down with their kids and work on homework, so volunteer tutors step in to help. Bindley said families at homeless shelters are often staying there longer since there are fewer available jobs and affordable housing. Kids sometimes withdraw or act out as they linger in the shelters, she said.

"It's just a lot of stress," she said.

The Indiana Department of Education expects that numbers from the 2008-2009 school year — data won't be available until the end of the month — will show a continued increase in homelessness.

"That is very likely going to be the case, unfortunately," Stanczykiewicz said.

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