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One Step Away: Student homelessness on the rise

By Ethan Cohen

On Sept, 22, the U.S. Department of Education released new statistics on student homelessness, reporting that nearly 1.3 million public school students in the United States experienced homelessness in the 2012-13 school year. This marks an eight percent rise from the 2011-12 school year.

Seventy-five percent of the students recorded as homeless were living doubled-up in a residence with another family. Sixteen percent were living in a homeless shelter, while six percent were living in hotels or motels and three percent (41,635 students) did not have any shelter at night.

Pennsylvania reported a 15 percent rise in homelessness among public school students, almost double the national rate, increasing from 18,231 to 19,459 children. Four thousand of those students attended Philadelphia schools, with 3,268 more enrolled in surrounding counties.

Karyn Tymes oversees the children living at the Woodstock Family Center, a homeless shelter in North Philadelphia for single mothers and their children. Residents constantly rotate in and out, but she estimates that about a hundred children live there at any given time.

When asked what her role is at Woodstock, Tymes responds, "I wear a lot of…can we say some capes? Aprons?" One of Tymes' "capes" is that of the school liaison, which means she checks up on the children at their schools to see how they are managing. This involves a lot of traveling: the students are enrolled in schools all across the region, some as far away as Plymouth Meeting.

The reason for the children attending such a wide range of schools is the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act, part of the No Child Left Behind Act, which stipulates, among other things, that transportation be provided so that students experiencing homelessness can stay at the same school, even if they no longer live within the school's district. This is meant to allow for some continuity in a child's life that may otherwise have little consistency.

Even for students who are covered by McKinney-Vento, the stress of homelessness has proven to have significant damaging effects on performance in school.

As reported in 2012 by Seattle University's Project on Family Homelessness, half of children who experience homelessness are held back for at least one grade. Twenty-two percent are held back for multiple grades.

The study also found that children experiencing homelessness are twice as likely to have learning disabilities and three times as likely to have emotional disturbances as their peers who are not homeless.

"You don't know if they're in a shelter or in a home period, you don't know what these kids are going through," says Tymes.

"We have other children that are in the schools that have been sexually abused, they have mentally been abused and they have been through so many things," says Andrea Green, a direct support professional at Woodstock. "When the kids are shut in and shut down and don't want to talk, there is something going on."

A survey released in October by the Administration for Children and Families found that 60 percent of homeless youth have been raped or assaulted.

Green provides support not only for the children, but also for the mothers. "We want to be role models towards the parents so they can know how to be role models with their children," says Green. "They're coming from broken homes and they are not stable so we're here to make sure the stability comes."

In Green’s view, though, the responsibility does not lie only on families. “We got to have the school, we got to have the neighborhood, we got to have the parents,” she says.

The level of engagement between parents and Philadelphia schools ranges widely, depending both on the parents and on the schools.

"I've seen one [child] get all F's," says Green. "And I'm saying, 'How didn't you know that your child was failing all this time?'"

One Woodstock resident, who chose to remain anonymous, applied a year in advance to transfer her daughter from a public elementary school in West Philadelphia to a charter school. "I really do think that charter schools are totally different from public schools," she says. "They want to get to know the parents."

Many of the charter schools, though, admit students through a lottery system. "You're child has got to be picked or you've got to know somebody," says Green. Renaissance Schools, charters that do not admit through lottery but rather accept all students living within a boundary, frequently suffer from the same issues of overcrowding and low staff-to-student ratio as the traditional public schools in Philadelphia.

The substantial rise in the reported number of students experiencing homelessness may partially be due to improvements in survey methodology. The total headcount, however, is still a low estimate for the actual number of students experiencing homelessness (The School District of Philadelphia, for example, estimated about 10,000 students experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia in 2013), since many homeless students choose to hide their living situation.

In October, at "Finding Home," a panel discussion on youth facing housing insecurity held at Temple University by Presenting Our Perspective On Philly Youth News or POPPYN, Kelly Devlin of the Red Shield Family Residence praised Philadelphia's survey improvements. "The City of Philadelphia has really been doing a really good job this year at counting unaccompanied youth and youth experiencing homelessness," she said. "I'd like to see that continue to grow so we can get some more accurate figures to be able to provide funding."

In theory, at least, more accurate numbers should lead to more accurate funding. Government budgeting, however, does not currently respond accordingly to the statistics being collected.

Of the students reported homeless in the 2012-2013 school year, only 64 percent were covered by McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance grants, the annual federal allotments under the McKinney-Vento Act that are meant to assist public schools in providing "a free and appropriate public education for homeless/displaced children and youth."

In addition to transportation, the McKinney-Vento grants are used for school supplies, tutoring, violence prevention counseling, referrals for health services, and many other essential needs for students experiencing homelessness.

The president's budget proposal for fiscal year 2015, released in March, included a 14 percent increase to the McKinney-Vento program. However, the House of Representatives passed legislation that included zero increase to McKinney-Vento and the Senate's legislation included an increase of only two percent. The fiscal year 2015 budget is not yet finalized, but prospects do not seem hopeful for a significant increase, if any, to McKinney-Vento funds.

In addition to the problematic shortage of funding, many homeless youth, or their families do not even know about the services available to them. "Every child is covered by McKinney-Vento, but mothers don't know about the McKinney-Vento Act, so sometimes we have to explain it to them," says Tymes.

At “Finding Home,” it was repeatedly stressed that insufficient funding posed a serious challenge to youth homelessness assistance.

"Anyone out there that works with young people in the city should understand that funding and resources are a huge issue to the ways that we can be effective with the young people that we care about," said Michael O'Bryan, community activities coordinator at the Achieving Independence Center.

"One of the major problems we have is staffing, funding for staffing," said Holden Jones, youth services coordinator at Red Shield. "You have sometimes one person on staff, and you may enlist volunteers or interns from a college or school that may come and help, but while at school they don't necessarily have a complete vested interest in the child or whoever we're servicing, they may only have certain hours in a week they need to be there and there is no consistency."

"It is hard to run a program with pennies," said Janiece Frisby, assistant program coordinator for the School District of Philadelphia's Teen Evolution Experience Network (TEEN). "There are a lot of great ideas that we have but you need money to execute them in a way that you would deem proper."

A key to increasing funding is educating the public about the harsh realities for children experiencing homelessness.

"The biggest challenge for youth in Philly is that not enough people are aware of the various circumstances that youth go through," said Nyfiece Carter, teen outreach supporter for TEEN.

Increased awareness among constituents potentially leads to more pressure on politicians to provide funding. Other speakers at "Finding Home" hoped to apply pressure directly to the government.

"Next month we are traveling to Harrisburg with a traveling exhibition," said Ernel Martinez, artist and instructor at Mural Arts' Journey2Home program. "That's to put pressure on politicians and policymakers to change how they go about funding some of the social services here in Philadelphia, in particular to help young people."

Martinez will have his work cut out for him, as will all of those who spoke at "Finding Home" on behalf of their organizations.

Tash, a member of the panel who shared her own experiences with youth homelessness, found optimism just in the fact that POPPYN, a group of high-school students, had organized the event and were spreading awareness. "It's about time," she said. "This is something that is much needed."