Student Homelessness is No Longer Just a Big City Problem

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  • December 05, 2013

By Sarah Jackson

Fourteen-year-old Drew—who lives with his parents in a Ramada hotel in suburban Denver—is not who most of us think of when we imagine the homeless in America.

Drew, recently profiled at the American Prospect, does his schoolwork on the bed or at one of the dozen tables in the lobby where guests have breakfast in the morning.  His parents cook the family’s meals on a hotplate, and they keep their clothes stacked between the walls and the beds.  He’s lived in hotels for more than a year, since his family lost its home in the mortgage crisis.

Student Homelessness is No Longer Just a Big City Problem, Photo/ Indiana Public Media

Drew still attends middle school in suburban Denver, a region where the number of suburban poor grew by 138 percent between 2000 and 2011, compared with 61 percent growth in the city.  As in Denver, suburbs across the country are now home to more poor residents than central cities.

Increasingly, as poverty spreads to the suburbs, homelessness is spreading too.

But unlike “traditional” homelessness, this is not just single individuals living on the streets. More often than not, the new homeless are families like Drew’s.  These families live in hotels, or have moved in with friends in temporary arrangements that have turned permanent, or live in transitional housing or shelters.  Often they’ve recently lost a job, suffered an illness, or are members of the working poor who couldn’t pay that last big medical bill or property tax increase.

For children like Drew, success in school can be challenging.  Bill Wolfe, who runs the Homeless Children’s Education Fund in Pittsburgh, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that homeless children often have trouble “keeping up with schoolwork amid chaos—the entire family living in one bedroom of a relative’s house, or in a different motel every night, or in the family car.”  Research shows homeless students are at an increased risk of falling behind and dropping out.

New research from the National Center for Homeless Education finds a striking 72 percent increase in the number of homeless children in public schools since the beginning of the recession.

Across the country suburban schools and municipalities are struggling to keep up with demand.

“Often, suburbs don’t have the same sorts of infrastructure and supports in place to meet the needs of a growing poor population,” Elizabeth Kneebone, told the Baltimore Sun.  ”If you can’t afford a reliable car, it can be difficult to connect to those kinds of opportunities.”

The suburbs of Baltimore County experienced an explosion in the homeless population, with growth of 58 percent between 2000 and 2011 compared to 4 percent in the city during that time.

In suburban Chicago, the Chicago Tribune reports, school personnel are struggling to make sure homeless children have what they need for school—“backpacks, school uniforms, gym clothes—even copies of their birth certificates or medical records.”  These are things, educators say, that often get lost when “families are in perpetual transition.”

Advocates gathered in Pittsburgh last month to discuss regional solutions at a forum organized by the Homeless Children’s Education Fund. We profiled suburban Penn Hills outside of Pittsburgh in Confronting Suburban Poverty in America. The suburb has a growing low-income population and a lack of access to jobs, transportation, and other needed services.

Peter Miller, who studies how schools and communities are responding to this crisis, spoke at the forum. He said that in the Penn Hills School District, the number of students identified as homeless increased from eight in 2008 to 82 in 2012-13.

Miller’s research finds that city schools are often better prepared to respond to the needs of homeless students than adjacent districts.  Urban districts, for example, often have full-time staff to coordinate transportation, connect families with school and community services, and help with academic screening.  His research also notes that in suburban districts, families often lack access to critical afterschool programs, community services, and other social supports.

Our research suggests that nonprofits and jurisdictions need to collaborate and  work at a sufficiently large scale in order to meet the new challenges posed by the changing geography of poverty and its close cousin, homelessness. These approaches are necessary to reach more communities, overcome fragmentation, and provide a broad enough range of services.

Miller pointed to the Wayne Regional Education Service Agency (RESA) in Michigan, California’s County Offices of Education, Wisconsin’s Cooperative Educational Service Agencies, and Pennsylvania’s “Intermediate Units,” which coordinate services across districts, as a good start at scale and collaboration.  He also pointed to the need for collaborative data collection to track homeless student outcomes.

Region-wide thinking and collaboration like those Miller mentions are needed to make sure that Drew and kids like him can thrive and get the services they need.

Photo courtesy of Indiana Public Media

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