The Journal Gazette
Friday, January 31, 2020 1:00 am

Homeless students on rise in US: Study

FWCS has 685; EACS, 131; both let kids stay in school

ASHLEY SLOBODA | The Journal Gazette

It's unlikely Allen County residents would encounter a child living on the streets.

Knowing children whose families are doubled-up with others because of financial hardship is a more likely homeless scenario.

A record-high 1.5 million public school students nationwide experienced homelessness in the 2017-18 academic year, and 74% of those lived with other people for lack of alternatives, according to federal data the National Center for Homeless Education released Wednesday.

Indiana's homeless student population for that year was 18,625, up by 4.3% from the 2015-16 school year, the center reported.

It indicated students could have been homeless for a brief period or for the entire period covered in the report.

The number of homeless students nationwide is alarming, said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection. The national nonprofit works to overcome homelessness through education.

“But for many of these children and youth, public schools are their best – and often only – source of support,” Duffield said in a statement.

Fort Wayne Community Schools and East Allen County Schools are among the districts serving homeless students. The districts serve about 30,000 and 10,000 total students, respectively.

The homeless population has steadily grown at FWCS, which had 367 such students in 2013-14 and 951 in 2018-19. This year's count is at 685 as of Jan. 1, the district reported.

“A lot of people are surprised by the number of homeless students we serve,” FWCS spokeswoman Krista Stockman said.

At EACS, the homeless population this academic year as of Thursday was 131, and the majority are students whose family is or was living with others for economic reasons, said Michelle Wenglikowski, director of student services.

Students are considered homeless for the entire school year even if their situation changes, she said.

Both districts strive to provide consistency for homeless students by letting them stay at the same school year-round despite moves that would normally result in them changing schools. That may include providing transportation for those students, the districts said.

“We want to keep their school environment stable so at least something in their life is stable,” Stockman said.

The numbers released Wednesday don't reflect the totality of homelessness among children. For instance, the total doesn't include students who experienced homelessness only in the summer, students enrolled at non-public schools or those who dropped out, according to the report.

Underidentification is also a problem, said Duffield of SchoolHouse Connection.

“Schools and communities need to know who is experiencing homelessness in order to help them succeed – and policymakers at all levels must prioritize action to support these invisible and often overlooked students,” Duffield said in a statement.

Stockman agreed. FWCS offers clothing and other necessities to students in need, and homeless students can also get extra support from school personnel, she said.

FWCS can connect families with resources when they begin encountering difficulties, Stockman added, but families might not alert the district, especially if they think the situation will be temporary.

Some arrangements – like a student's stay at a homeless shelter – make it easy to identify those without a fixed home, Stockman said. Homelessness is less obvious when families move from house to house, she said, especially if the parents can drive their children to school.

“We might never know they're in a homeless situation,” she said.

At a glance

Federal data show 1.5 million public school students nationwide were homeless in the 2017-18 academic year. Their primary nighttime residence when they were first identified as homeless is as follows.

• 74% – Shared housing with others due to financial hardship

• 12% – Shelters, transitional housing, awaiting foster care

• 7% – Hotels/motels

• 7% – Unsheltered

Source: Federal data summary released Wednesday by the National Center for Homeless Education

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