Equity & Diversity

Districts See Rising Numbers of Homeless Students

By Catherine Gewertz — October 31, 2008 4 min read
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School districts across the country are enrolling growing numbers of homeless children, as parents lose their jobs, leases, and mortgages in what many observers are calling the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Many districts were already seeing a spike in homeless enrollments last spring, when the subprime-mortgage crisis began unfolding. But this fall’s numbers are rising at an even faster clip as more families feel the fallout of a stumbling economy, said Barbara Duffield, the policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, in Washington.

School district liaisons who coordinate services for homeless families are scrambling to sign up students for class, get them backpacks and other supplies, and arrange transportation for them, as well as help their parents find clothes, food, and shelter.

“Referral rates are sky-high,” Ms. Duffield said. “People are calling us in a panic because of the numbers.”

In the first two weeks of this school year, the Clark County, Nev., district, which includes Las Vegas, identified 1,500 homeless students, nearly twice the number it saw during the same period last school year, according to the association. The Albuquerque, N.M., district this fall is seeing double its usual level at this time of year. Between mid-August and mid-October, the Wichita, Kan., district had 720 homeless students, two-thirds the number it had in all of 2007-08.

“This is my fifteenth year, and I haven’t seen anything like this,” said Kathleen M. Kropf, the homeless-education liaison to the Macomb Intermediate school system, which coordinates services for 21 districts in the Detroit area. “If it keeps going like this, I don’t know what we are going to do.”

Subprime Fallout

Last year, the district served 514 homeless students, but in the first two months of this year, it has already had 239, and several referrals a day are still rolling in, Ms. Kropf said. The district is seeing more families made homeless because banks foreclosed on mortgages, she said, while in previous years, homelessness was more typically caused by family traumas such as domestic abuse or a home fire.

A recent analysis by First Focus, a Washington-based advocacy group for children and families, estimated that 2.2 million foreclosures on subprime home mortgages will affect 2 million children nationwide in the next two years. It noted that many more children will likely end up homeless as their parents default on conventional loans or are evicted from rental units whose landlords have defaulted.

District liaisons for homeless families are seeing those dynamics daily. Roxanne M. Richardson, the homeless liaison for the 20,000-student Kyrene, Ariz., schools near Phoenix, said two families had rented a place together when they arrived from Mexico recently, but had to leave when one of the adults lost his job. Both families moved in with a relative who was renting a house, and the adults got jobs working in fast-food restaurants and cleaning homes.

But one afternoon a month ago, the families’ four school-age children returned to find the house padlocked. The bank had foreclosed because the landlord couldn’t pay his mortgage, she said. Now, they are bunking with someone else.

Middle Class Affected

Front-line workers report that more middle-class families are finding themselves homeless. Single parents are hit particularly hard, like the mother of four girls in the Kyrene district who called Ms. Richardson’s office when she was evicted after losing her job in advertising.

“We’ve had lots of people calling who have just been evicted. These are middle-class people, people who have never been evicted before,” said Helen E. Fox, the liaison for the homeless in the Albuquerque district, which had enrolled 2,235 homeless students as of last week, double the number at that time last year. “They’ve lost their jobs, or their homes have been foreclosed on.”

The increase in homeless families can strain a school system’s transportation budget, since the federal McKinney-Vento Act instructs districts to let children stay in the same schools if at all possible, and provide transportation, even they are living outside the boundaries.

Timothy J. Couto, the homeless liaison in the 12,000-student L’Anse Creuse district outside Detroit, said he just applied for a $10,000 state grant to help defray those costs. Last year, the district spent $3,048 to transport one family’s children to school when they were staying in a shelter 25 miles away for a month, he said.

Many recently homeless people “double up” with friends or relatives and are unaware that even temporary homelessness makes them eligible for the help under the McKinney-Vento Act: the right to keep their children in the same schools with free transportation and help getting school supplies, said Diana Bowman, the director of the National Center for Homeless Education, a federally financed technical-assistance center in Browns Summit, N.C.

In response to the rise in the numbers of homeless children this fall, the organization produced a brochure and a poster on its Web site outlining the rights of parents and the obligations of districts under that law.

Elizabeth Hinz, the Minneapolis district’s liaison for homeless and highly mobile students, said the influx this year is stepping up demand on psychological and social-work services.

By the end of September, the district had identified 2,086 homeless children. At this time last year, the number was 1,850. “I just don’t know where all this goes,” she said. “It’s very frightening.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 05, 2008 edition of Education Week as Districts See Rising Numbers of Homeless Students

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