School Is Haven When Children Have No Home
By SAM DILLON
WICHITA, Kan., Nov. 22 - The public school system helps Mariah Miller, a first-grade pupil at Park Elementary here, survive homelessness.
Mariah lives with her parents and little brother at a Salvation Army shelter in downtown Wichita. This fall, a school social worker outfitted her with the school’s red and blue uniform, a notebook, pencils, glue and other supplies, and recently gave her a new winter coat. A school volunteer tutors her after classes end.
Homeless adults get little help from the government, since many poverty relief programs were dismantled in the 1990’s. But a federal law that requires local districts to seek out and enroll homeless students and provide services to them has forced public schools across the nation to become safety nets of last resort, educators and experts on the homeless said.
With unemployment and spiraling housing costs pushing a growing number of families into homelessness, school systems across the country are seeing more and more children like Mariah living in shelters, cars or motels. Some states are reporting a nearly 50 percent increase in homeless students over the last year.
“Schools are often the only safe haven these students have when home life disintegrates,” said Sue Steele, the coordinator of the Wichita Public Schools’ homeless student program.
Nationwide, thousands of homeless families depend on free school meal programs to feed their children. And in compliance with the federal law, known as the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, school officials like Ms. Steele arrange for homeless students to get immunizations and tuberculosis tests, dispatch taxis to take them from shelters to school and supply items like clothing and art supplies.
Some homeless people rely on schools for basic needs in ways not foreseen by the federal law. Michael Washman, a destitute teenager in Wichita, described how he bathed each day in his school’s washroom while living in a park. Penny Longhofer, principal of the Anderson Elementary School here, said a homeless couple living with three children in a van outside her school this fall volunteered frequently to work in the school cafeteria, apparently because they had nowhere else to go during the day.
The causes of the rise in homelessness vary by region. Here in Wichita, layoffs of 12,000 workers at Boeing, Raytheon and two other aircraft companies have contributed.
In California, surging housing prices have resulted in the eviction of thousands of middle-class parents, said Leanne Wheeler, the coordinator for homeless education at the California Department of Education. Ms. Wheeler said she constantly fielded phone calls from school districts inquiring about procedures for enrolling homeless students and from parents requesting advice.
“Parents call every day and say, `I’m homeless, I’ve got to get my kid into school, what should I do?’ ” Ms. Wheeler said.
School authorities in Amarillo, Tex., reported that they had already enrolled some 1,200 homeless students, far more than at the same time last year, said Barbara W. James, director of the Texas Homeless Education Office. Some of those students, Ms. James said, were from families traveling along Interstate 40, which runs from North Carolina past Amarillo to California.
“Their cars give out, they run out of money, and they come in to Amarillo looking for help,” she said.
Experts say they can only estimate how many students are homeless across the United States because nobody has gathered nationwide data since a 2000 report to Congress by the Department of Education. That report said there were 930,000 homeless youths, 621,000 of whom were enrolled in public schools.
Dr. Martha Burt, a researcher at the Urban Institute in Washington who in 1996 led a federally financed nationwide survey of homeless people, said the department’s 2000 figures undercounted the school-age homeless considerably.
Statistics from individual states suggest that their numbers are rapidly rising. In October 2002, Colorado Department of Education officials counted 4,103 homeless students enrolled in public schools there. By May, the number had risen to 5,963.
Maryland state officials counted 5,605 school-age homeless children two years ago, but last year the number grew to 7,322.
In Oregon, officials used data from a census of people living in shelters to estimate that there were about 21,000 homeless school-age youths in the state two years ago. Using the same methodology this fall, Oregon put the number at 28,600.
“Homelessness is exploding in Oregon,” said Dona Horine Bolt, coordinator of the state’s homeless education program. “We’re seeing people who are brand new to poverty, learning how to survive.”
As they move through the state, Ms. Bolt said, homeless people use local school district offices, especially in rural towns, “as a sort of one-stop center for help.”
“They’re looking for a house and some food and a job,” Ms. Bolt said. “They ask not only how to enroll their children, but also about jobs or where to park the trailer for a couple of weeks or where the soup kitchen is.”
The McKinney-Vento law, passed in 1987, strengthened the rights of homeless students when Congress reauthorized it in 2002. It requires each of the country’s 15,000 school districts to designate a “liaison for homeless children and youth,” whose duties include searching for children living in shelters, motels, campgrounds and other irregular residences, helping them enroll in school, and ensuring that they get immunizations and other medical and dental care. It also requires districts to provide transportation so that homeless children can attend the same school, even if their parents move about seeking shelter or jobs.
Federal grants to states to help comply with those mandates totaled $50 million this year. Educators say that financing falls considerably short of the need. Many school districts supplement the grants with federal money appropriated to help poor children.
Under the law, a child who becomes homeless anywhere in the United States has the right to be enrolled in virtually any school district in the country, immediately, simply by showing up there, and can remain enrolled unless the district disproves the homeless claim.
Legal disputes have developed in Illinois and Maryland. Robert K. Wilhite, the superintendent of Thornton Fractional District 215, a suburban district bordering Chicago, said several Chicago families had sought to enroll children in his district by falsely claiming homelessness.
In a separate case this fall, however, Illinois state officials intervened on behalf of a 14-year-old girl whose family had been evicted from a Chicago residence, persuading Mr. Wilhite’s district to enroll her, said Patricia Nix-Hodes, a lawyer for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
In Wichita, the liaison for the homeless, Ms. Steele, spends her days seeking out homeless children. One recent day, she identified as homeless a child living with his sick mother in the basement of a relative’s house since the two lost their home in a foreclosure, and she visited a father, mother, first-grade son and seventh-grade daughter living in a motel room after being evicted. Ms. Steele arranged for a school bus to retrieve the daughter at the motel first thing each morning for her ride to a Wichita middle school, and to drop her off last, shielding the girl from embarrassment before schoolmates.
And Ms. Steele visited Mariah’s parents. Because Mr. Miller is disabled, Mariah’s mother, Althea, was the sole breadwinner, earning $13.52 an hour at a Cessna plant here until her layoff in February, Ms. Miller said. Unemployment benefits ran out in May, forcing the Millers out of their rented home, in with relatives for a time, and finally into a shelter. Ms. Miller has found a job as a security guard, making $8.25 an hour, but the family owes car payments and back rent, so although she would like to spend more on her children, there is little hope of that anytime soon.
Homelessness seems to be taking its toll on Mariah, said her teacher, Debbie Mendoza. Mariah often arrives at school seeming a bit dazed, partly because she has difficulty sleeping at the shelter, and she falls asleep at her desk. She completes most of her homework but often forgets to turn it in. Still, the Salvation Army and her school have protected Mariah from much of the harshness of homelessness suffered by adults.
As Mariah walked out of the shelter on her way to a free breakfast at Park Elementary early one morning, she waved across the street to a dozen men. Broke and homeless, they huddled against a bitter wind off the Kansas prairie.