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Homeless Kids, Parents, and Schools

sign reading "how many homeless families does it take to make a billionaire"

“The new face of homelessness is a kid under 18 years old.” So many people have noticed this that the quotation can’t even be attributed. Many families, even with one or both parents working, can’t make enough money for a place to live. The number of homeless American children in grades K-12 cannot be exactly known, for many reasons.

However, officials believe that more than half of them are in the elementary grades. Older kids who don’t want to reveal their condition to the authorities become part of not only the “invisible homeless,” but the uncounted homeless. The tendency of some older kids, and even of some parents, to conceal their homelessness is described by euphemisms like “underreporting” or having “reporting issues.”

Not long ago, Al Jazeera America published a guest blog titled “Living in the cycle of homelessness,” written by 33-year old Julia Cooley, mother of a 4-year-old son. They have been homeless for three years despite Cooley’s employment as a teacher’s assistant, but she still holds self-sufficiency as a goal. Cooley writes:

Self-sufficiency is defined as the ability to provide for yourself without the help of others. I could not provide for me or my son. My family was in no position to help us financially or to provide housing…. I needed stable housing, childcare for my son, and a job. (In that order.)

A friend told her about Our House, an Atlanta agency that offers free childcare, help with transportation, medical services, a childcare training program for parents, and housing referrals — and while this small family still doesn’t have a place of its own, the possibility exists more strongly than ever before.

Al Jazeera also published a story, by Azmat Khan & Lori Jane Gliha, about the tragic case of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd, who disappeared from a Washington, D.C., homeless shelter where she lived with her mother and three younger brothers. She was apparently taken by a man who worked there, who later was found dead, and Relisha is still missing. There has been a great deal of controversy over who was at fault. Terrible as the story is, it has drawn attention to the massive number of children who are experiencing homelessness in the nation’s capital:

According to the Fiscal Policy Institute, a Washington think tank focused on low-income populations, the number of families staying in D.C. shelters increased from more than 400 to more than 700 in the last year…. Advocates say the surge in homelessness in Washington isn’t just putting pressure on homeless families, but is also pushing the city to cut corners.

Even with the occasional statistical fluke that makes the numbers go down, the overall picture nationwide is dismal. There are more homeless children and less money to help them. Or is that the main problem? TakePart.com, in a story accompanying a photo essay called “The 10 Worst States for Student Homelessness,” reveals the astonishing fact that out of the nation’s 15,000 school districts, only 3,000 have applied for government grants available under the McKinney-Vento Act. On the bright side:

Many schools already have homeless education coordinators, and more districts are hiring them. These educators help students access what many of us consider life basics — a pair of shoes, a shower, and even a prepaid phone for safety. There are more than 15,000 of these liaisons in schools in the United States.

A child might be living in a place with no running water or electricity, and may not have access to a TV, and almost certainly doesn’t have a computer to work with. In fact, there might not even be a flat surface with a chair in front of it to do homework.

A lot of Americans are accustomed to thinking of homelessness as an urban problem, but more than half of all homeless people live outside of big cities. This can make their lives more difficult in many ways, including complications with getting the kids to school. According to the McKinney-Vento Act, children must have transportation provided to the school they were enrolled in before they became homeless.

Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea

When homes are lost and parents have to move their families into shelters or worse, they face the choice of putting each child through the trauma of starting at a new school, or putting themselves and the kids through the daily trauma of traveling to and from the school of the child’s last enrollment. Sometimes the district doesn’t have funds and the parents have to figure out the transportation. Some kids spend hours on buses every day.

To try and make sure that any child who needs help gets it, teachers are told to watch their students for signs like carrying a lot of belongings; not wanting to leave a coat where it might go missing; acting like they haven’t gotten any sleep; wearing the same clothes; and lack of hygiene. Sadly, it’s a danger sign when kids like getting to school early, or when they hang around after hours for the social atmosphere and to avoid having to return to a chaotic living situation. For many kids, school is their hold on stability and normalcy.

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Source: “Living in the cycle of homelessness,” AlJazeera.com, 12/11/13
Source: “Are We Doing Enough to Protect Homeless Children?” AlJazeera.com, 03/27/14
Source: “The 10 Worst States for Student Homelessness,” TakePart.com, 12/08/13
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