Amid Foreclosures, A Rise In Homeless Students

The pain caused by housing foreclosures and a weak economy is spilling over into the nation's schools. School districts nationwide say they're seeing a big increase in the number of students who are homeless.

California's Central Valley, for example, had seen a huge boom in construction, but now the foreclosure crisis has hit cities there hard.

Laura Tanner-McBrien of the Fresno Unified School District says that when she drives around town, she can easily tell who's hurting.

"As you go down our street, no matter what part of town you're in, you see a lot of dry grass right now," she says. "And you can just tell that those are the homes that someone has had to just abandon."

Tanner-McBrien runs a program called Project Access, which helps ensure that homeless and foster children get a good education. She has always had a steady number of families who are chronically homeless in her district, but she says that now former homeowners are knocking on her office door.

Some families don't know that even though they have lost a home, they still have the right to an education. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act guarantees students from homeless families the right to stay in the school they were attending.

But not all districts accept their obligations under the law.

Barbara Duffield of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth says a homeless liaison in a large metropolitan area told her of about 20 homeless high school students who had been denied enrollment. Administrators at the schools were worried that those students would drag down test scores and make it harder for the school to avoid sanctions under the No Child Left Behind law.

Duffield says data on the number of homeless students usually lag well behind the real figures. But based on her surveys, she says, many districts have reported increases of 10 percent — some as high as 40 percent over the past year. Some of the increases may be due to better reporting, she says.

But the double whammy of foreclosures and tough economic times is taking a toll.

A Child's Place, which helps homeless kids in Charlotte, N.C., recently has had families request help in getting food, says Annabelle Suddreth, the group's executive director. "That's a new trend for us," she says.

The big challenge is averting further disruptions for children whose lives have already been turned upside down.

Suddreth works with schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area to ensure that kids stay in the same schools they attended when they had a home.

"School becomes the most stable part of their day," she says. "You want them to be able to go into the same classroom, sit in the same seat, see the same teacher, because that's normal for them when everything else around them isn't normal."

While many homeless families are reluctant to admit their status, there are those few that seek to profit from the label.

School districts in the Chicago area turn to investigator Bill Beitler when they want to verify the legal addresses of students. And he says they occasionally ask him to check out a family that says it's homeless but doesn't act like it.

"They start driving up in a BMW or a Jaguar and they're saying that they're homeless, but they have the nicest car in the lot," Beitler says. He investigates whether the families are trying to play the system in hopes that their kids will be allowed to attend their favorite school, even though they live in a different neighborhood.

Beitler says it's not a big problem, but as real homelessness increases, there are those ready to impersonate the homeless.

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