Homeless Students A Growing Problem For Schools

It's parent-teacher conference time. But for many students across the country, finding a bed at night is top of mind. Host Michel Martin talks about the growing number of homeless students in the U.S., with NPR Education Correspondent Claudio Sanchez, and Larissa Dickinson, a social worker for Mobile County Public Schools in Alabama.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, we'll tell you about the late night talk show called "Totally Biased." Never heard of it? That might be why it was canceled. But we'll also hear why so many critics are up in arms that it was canceled. That's later this hour.

But first, we want to take a look at a growing problem that might be hiding in plain sight in your school. Now this is the time of year when many parents have headed to school for those parent-teacher conferences. But if you went to yours, did you stop and think about how many of those parents - and by definition, those kids - don't have a place of their own to live? And it could be many more than you think. The National Center for Homeless Education has analyzed data from the Department of Education and found that there are now more than 1.2 million homeless kids in K-12 classrooms in the U.S. and that 41 states are seeing a significant increase in childhood homelessness. We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called Larissa Dickinson. She's the homeless education social worker for Mobile County Public Schools in Alabama. Ms. Dickinson, thanks so much for joining us.

LARISSA DICKINSON: Hello, and it's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: And also for perspective, we've called NPR education correspondent Claudio Sanchez. Claudio, thank you for joining us once again.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: So, Claudio, let me start with you. The data comes from the 2011-2012 school year. That's years after the latest recession began and at a time when a lot of people - or economists anyway - said that the economy was actually improving. So why would these numbers be going up now?

SANCHEZ: I think it's because families still haven't recovered from this recession. Basically, we still have a rising rate of poverty. We still see a lot of new poor families who lost their homes during the mortgage crisis certainly, and - or lost their jobs - parents struggling with addiction, single parents, mostly women, teen moms with no jobs or families earning a minimum wage.

MARTIN: So there's a knock-on effect that's now being felt. Do we know which states have the biggest numbers of homeless children?

SANCHEZ: Well, you mentioned the national number, but the breakout seems to show that California, Florida, Illinois, New York and Texas have the bulk of those homeless kids and families. But even Alaska, Maine, Wyoming, North Dakota, Vermont, they're way up there as well, even though they have much, much smaller populations. So we're seeing it everywhere.

MARTIN: So, Larissa, in Mobile, Alabama school district, there are more than 5,000 homeless students that you know about. That represents about 9 percent of the student body. Can you just tell us what are some of the circumstances that led to kids being in this situation? And when we say homelessness, we don't necessarily mean kids always living in shelters, right? We mean - what - kids sometimes doubling-up with family members, not having an address for their own nuclear family, right?

DICKINSON: Exactly. McKinney-Vento defined homelessness as a course of traditional living in unsheltered places - as is parks, abandoned buildings. It also covers hotel-motels, shelters. But then it covers families that are living doubled-up because of the economic hardship. So if one family can't afford to live financially on their own, they may live with another family, and that's what we consider as doubled-up. And that tends to be, for Mobile County, about 75 to 80 percent of our students are living in that particular living - housing situation.

MARTIN: Let me give you the national numbers. Nationally, we - according to this report that we've been citing - 75 percent of homeless children double-up, 15 percent are in shelters, 6 percent are in hotels and motels and about 4 percent are what is called, you know, unsheltered - and we can only just imagine. So, Larissa, talk a little bit about what are some of the circumstances - what are some of the issues that these kids, when they come to school, that you have to try to address?

DICKINSON: With Mobile County, we do wear uniforms. So that can be a barrier for our homeless students if they cannot afford to purchase uniforms. So we help in that area. And also, the biggest thing that we see is proof of residency. Most school districts require the family to prove that they live in the district. Well, if our families do not have power bills or any type of way of showing that they actually live in that district, that can be a barrier. So that's one of the things that we try to work with first to make sure they enroll immediately and that we forgo the necessary documentation to get them in school, and then we get that on the backend.

MARTIN: Claudio, talk a little bit more about that if you would?

SANCHEZ: What people don't know is that the numbers that we actually have that schools register are actually guesstimates because there's a weird thing. Last time I checked, the way the homeless are counted, in every state, between 40 and 90 percent of homeless students identified by the Education Department are not considered homeless by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. And the point is that the severity of their living situation allows them to receive support from schools, but does not allow them to receive help from HUD. And that creates a huge problem. Going back to the point about establishing residency, for example, and that schools need to show, well, this kid lives somewhere, so we need to know where that is. Today, the law requires that school register homeless kids even if they lack immunization records or proof of residence. Schools have to provide transportation to these kids regardless of where they reside. And, you know, again, it reminds me of a story we did out of Anaheim, California, in the shadow of Walt Disney, or Disneyland.

There were strips of hotels and motels, really cheap dumps, where families were in and out. These families sometimes lived in cars. Sometimes they lived under bridges. And when the schools tried to get a hold of them, well, they had no address to report. It was a very hostile relationship that schools had with these families. It was out of frustration. It was out of not really understanding the law. My understanding is that schools have improved in trying to reach out to these families. There are model programs. There's one in Phoenix where there are schools for homeless kids, or that at least provide more services to homeless kids, but those are few and far between.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the growing number of homeless students in American schools. Our guests are NPR education correspondent Claudio Sanchez - that's who was speaking just now - and Larissa Dickinson, the homeless education social worker from Mobile, Alabama's public schools. Ms. Dickinson, you know, about that issue that Claudio Sanchez just raised, there have been a number of stories about school districts taking a very aggressive stance about people proving that they have the right to send their kids to school in that particular jurisdiction. So do you think the schools really, actually want to enroll these kids?

DICKINSON: Well, as far as Mobile County Public School system, we do. This is my 11th year in this position, and we've done a lot of education with our administrators, our counselors, our registrars to educate them on the rights of our homeless students and families. And also, we've tried to educate our parents and students on their rights. And as Mr. Sanchez was speaking about our families living in hotels, we're seeing a lot of that in Mobile County.

And what we've done is we've gone out and did hotel, motel canvasses before school starts to let families know that if they're living in a hotel, they have a right to enroll their children in school without delay. So we have really partnered with our hotels and motels to get that information out. And we sometimes get referrals from the clerk at the desk. They will refer our families to us to let them know that we can help them, get them to school, provide the transportation, the school supplies and uniforms that they need so they can come and be in school.

MARTIN: What are some of the other challenges of making sure that homeless kids not just enroll in school, but then succeed in school? What are some of the challenges that you are finding?

DICKINSON: I think our major challenge is the transportation because our families are highly mobile. So they're moving from different school district to different school district. So what we really want to do is keep them in their school origin, and that's a school that they were attending when they became homeless.

And we know that if we can keep that continuity for them, then that's going to help them as far as their education and actually help them mentally because if they're experiencing housing instability, school is one place that they can come that's going to be stable for them. But when they're moving from district to district, that's a barrier. So what we've tried to do is work with our transportation department. We've worked with the public transportation. And also, we provide gas vouchers in order to help that child or those children stay in their school of origin.

MARTIN: Claudio, you want to pick up on that? What are some of the other challenges?

SANCHEZ: We don't know whether they're getting good nutrition. We don't know what their sleeping arrangement is at night. We don't know whether they even slept somewhere that was safe at night. These kids arrive to school with an enormous stigma and certainly an enormous learning curve because these are kids that are really under an enormous amount of pressure and stress, and that has an impact on learning. That has an impact on kids who can't focus. And teachers of course are frustrated because there's only so much they can do. What conditions these kids live in, they have no control over.

MARTIN: Talk about that if you would. So you can see how stressful this is for the kids and for the families, but you can see where it's also stressful for the teachers in the classrooms that are receiving them.

SANCHEZ: In many cases, and certainly when I've done stories related to this, I find that teachers often have to throw in the towel. There's only so much they can do. I've met teachers, certainly in Anaheim, where I saw some really desperate conditions. I met teachers who would reach out to these kids on their own. They'd go out and see where they were living. They'd talk to families. They'd offer help. But again, the numbers, in at least that instance, were too big.

And I think teachers just simply say, I can't do more, and the system can't do more. D.C., for example, has lost more than half of its affordable housing in the last 10 years, since 2002. And that has had a direct impact on these families. And last time that I was reading about this, D.C. General Hospital, which was turned into a homeless facility, right now had 900 people, 600 of which were children - kids under 18. That gives you a snapshot of how serious this is.

MARTIN: Ms. Dickinson, could you just give us a final thought about what would be most helpful to these families and to the schools that are trying to serve them?

DICKINSON: Well, as Mr. Sanchez was talking about, the definition of homelessness. If we could get the McKinney-Vento definition and the HUD definition of homelessness to match and to be able to get some resources and funds and to support our homeless students, that would really help. And I think education, letting our families know of their rights, our students know of their rights and getting the community involved. Our numbers are growing, and our resources are less. And it can get very frustrating. But if we can kind of come together and pull our resources, I think it would be a greater impact for our homeless students.

MARTIN: Claudio, could you give us a final thought? I'm curious about what's the current thinking among policymakers about this.

SANCHEZ: Well, unfortunately, I think that some of the solutions that have been proposed, as well-intentioned as they are, are Band-Aids. I think we've been dealing with a symptom, and we haven't been dealing with the problem. And I think the problem boils down to affordable housing for families. And as long as that's the case, we're going to continue to deal with the symptoms, which is kids without homes, families, nowhere to go and schools grappling with an enormous problem, a growing problem.

MARTIN: Claudio Sanchez is NPR's education correspondent. He was kind enough to join us once again in our Washington, D.C. studios. Larissa Dickinson is a homeless education social worker for the Mobile, Alabama public school system, and she was kind enough to join us from Mobile. Thank you so much, both of you, for speaking with us.

SANCHEZ: You're welcome.

DICKINSON: Thank you.

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