Homelessness among Students Is Up Sharply in the Suburbs

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  • August 25, 2014


Barbara Ray

In 2010, Penny Scrivner, a retired Greyhound bus driver, had a new job. Every morning, she swung by motels, abandoned cars, and street corners to pick up homeless children for school.

“I’ve picked up kids waiting on street corners,” she told the Oregonian in 2010. “They don’t have an address. I just know they’ll be standing there waiting.”

That morning she pulled over to an apartment building, where a family was living temporarily, to pick up a group of siblings.

“Penny,” one of the girls asks after the door shuts, “can I have a hug?”

“Oh, honey,” Scrivner says, “yes you can.”

school bus thumbThe 22 kids on the bus that day were on their way to Portland’s Community Transitional School, a private institution serving homeless and poor families. The school serves kids who live in school districts throughout the Portland metro area, Marcia Harris, the school’s development coordinator, told the Oregonian.

As school starts again this August, they’ll be joining thousands of students throughout the nation whose families are struggling with poverty and hardship. And increasingly that hardship is in the suburbs.

In many metro areas, suburban poverty is on the rise for a variety of reasons, including growing hardship during and following the recession.

In the Indianapolis metro area, for example, the number of homeless students in the suburbs (outside of Marion County) has grown sharply since 2007, the Indianapolis Star reported. Indiana’s Hendricks County, for example, has seen a 500-percent increase in the number of homeless students in the past five years. In 2013, 241 students were homeless, up from 40 in 2007. In fact, all counties in the metro area have seen increases in homeless students; the smallest increase was 24 percent in Putnam County.

The story is the same in the suburbs of Chicago, where in northwest suburban Cook County, according to the Daily Herald, “there are 55 percent more homeless students than two years ago. In DuPage and Lake counties the numbers have risen by more than 35 percent.” The statewide average change is a 17 percent increase.

The rise is driven by several factors, including a sluggish economy, fallout from the foreclosure crisis, low-wage jobs, fewer social services in the suburbs to catch families before they fall, and better identification by schools of homeless students.

classroom thumbOften in the suburbs, need exceeds available help. In the Washington, DC, metro area, according to a recent report by the Urban Institute and the Community Foundation of the National Capital Region,5,301 families were homeless in the region in January 2013, 4,406 of them in communities beyond the city center. Yet in those communities, shelters or transitional housing had only 2,529 beds for persons in families. The study area included Montgomery, Prince George’s, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William counties and the communities of Alexandria and Arlington.

The report finds that a typical homeless family is headed by a single mom in her late 20s with two young children. She also is likely working. In Loudoun County, Alexandria, or Arlington, for example, more than two-thirds of homeless adults in families were employed.

In the Inland Empire just east of Los Angeles, a region still struggling to recover from the housing crash, Larry Ellwell, principal of Victoria Elementary School in San Bernardino, told the New York Times that he was stunned by the number of families who could not afford necessities like clothes and dental care. He was also alarmed by the lack of services. In LA proper, where he’d worked before, families knew where to find help. In the suburbs, that’s not the case.

Indeed, as we’ve written before, “In many cases, schools are often a hub for delivering services . . . and frequently are the only place to which kids and parents will turn when their families are in need.”

“What we have out here,” Dom Betro, executive director of Family Services in Riverside County, told the Times, “is more need and fewer centers of resources. . . . Even if there is help—and that’s not always—people who need it can’t get to it.”

school busesMore suburbs should follow the lead of Denver, where a 2013 survey showed that families make up the largest percentage of homeless in the suburbs there. But Denver is beginning to coordinate its suburban services, Alexxa Gagner, spokeswoman for the Denver Rescue Mission, told the Denver Post. “One of the great things that’s happened in Denver is different service agencies have gotten out of their silos,” she said.

As Elizabeth wrote recently, the path out of poverty for suburban families “requires strategies that cut across jurisdictional boundaries and policy silos, and link up decisions around affordable housing, transportation, services, and community and economic development at the regional level.” The same applies to crafting effective strategies to address the growing homeless population many suburban school districts will be facing this year.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons user PRA

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