Aug. 16, 2010
More than 12,000 Massachusetts school kids don’t know where they will be sleeping at night. They are doing their homework at shelters, campgrounds, motels, in the back seat of the family car or on the sofa at a relative’s house.
The number of homeless students in the state is nearly double what it was five years ago. This mirrors a nationwide trend, which advocates say is largely spurred by the economic recession and foreclosure crisis. Meanwhile, federal funding for addressing the problem is lacking, advocates say.
The problem is putting a strain on local school districts and social service organizations that are trying to provide some stability for these students.
“It’s alarming,” said Cheryl Opper, founder and executive director of School on Wheels, which works with school districts and shelters to help homeless students in the area. “It’s a crisis we need to fix right now.”
Opper said the 200 students her organization works with – about half of whom live in shelters – are twice as likely to repeat a grade than their peers with homes. Nearly 75 percent of high school-aged homeless students nationally do not graduate, she said.
Homeless youth are more likely to score below grade level, repeat grades, and have poor attendance, according to the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis.
Some homeless students have moved five times in an academic year, each time changing schools. Their parents can be afraid to involve the school system. Some children don’t have a pencil and paper to work with, Opper said.
“It’s not even a matter of giving them homework to make up what they’ve missed,” she said. “They’ve missed the lessons learned in the classrooms. They’ve missed the experience of working with other students. There’s layers of learning that they’re missing.”
Experts say better data and more families willing to ask for help has contributed to the increase. But the biggest factor is the rising number of home foreclosures, which has led to a spike in the number of hidden homeless, families who were forced from their homes and are now bunking in with friends or relatives to survive the recession.
“It could be your next door neighbor because of the financial issues in the country,” said Kathleen Sheridan, director of grants and community relations for Weymouth schools. “There are a lot of everyday people that are in a financial crisis.”
Weymouth has a couple of homeless shelters. But the majority of the district’s 117 homeless students are from families who are temporarily living with relatives or friends, what the state calls “doubling up,” Sheridan said.
On the South Shore, Quincy had the largest homeless population last year with 223 students in that category. Weymouth was second-highest, and Marshfield was third with 67 homeless students.
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education identifies homeless students as anyone living in a shelter, with extended family, at a campground or in the car, or on the street.
“We’re definitely seeing more people on the verge of being homeless, said John Yazwinski, CEO of Father Bill’s & Mainspring, which has homeless shelters in Quincy and Brockton.
In the Brockton shelter, there were 337 children among the 190 families last year. They range from young kids, to seniors in high school who have left their families.
“What we’re seeing is a new group of homeless youth,” Yazwinski said.
The 2002 McKinney-Vento Act required schools to take steps to ensure homeless students have the same educational opportunities as their peers. That includes providing transportation to the “home” district if the student has to move out of town as their family seeks shelter.
But, Yazwinski said, “it doesn’t always work out,” given the amount of coordination the law requires of school districts. Also, experts say, federal funding has fallen short in helping school districts meet the law’s mandates.
Congress voted $65 million for homeless students each of the last two years; the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth estimates more than double that is needed to address the problem, in which 70 percent of school districts saw an increase in homeless students over the last three years.
Opper said one homeless student she knows went to five different schools in one year because of his family’s constant search for shelter.
“When they are bouncing from place to place and worried about having a roof over their head, it’s hard to focus on their history project,” she said.
The homeless population in classrooms could easily slip by unnoticed. But even with limited resources, administrators are working to identify these students, many of whom are ashamed to reach out for help.
Weymouth held a professional development day dedicated to the issue two years ago, Sheridan said. Now, secretaries know the right questions to ask when they enroll students.
“Does that student have a snack?,” Sheridan said, as an example. “Has the student . . . had a bath, are the clothes that they’re wearing okay?”
In January, the South Shore Coalition for Unaccompanied Youth formed, which includes Opper’s group, Father Bill’s and other homeless advocates and agencies. The coalition does everything from arrange emergency housing for homeless students, to helping them prepare for college.
With these additional resources, there have been success stories.
Last fall, Opper sent one of her students off to college. He had been living at a Brockton shelter; now he is in a dorm room at Newbury College. Next fall, 10 more former School on Wheels students will begin college.
“We let them know that they matter and so does their education,” Opper said.