More children have no place to call home: Homeless students a widespread concern

Valerie Miller-Coleman is executive director for Family Promise of Lawrence interfaith hospitality network. Miller-Coleman says there are currently five homeless students in the Family Promise program.

Fitting in with classmates. Adjusting to a new school. Managing homework and after-school activities.

By the numbers

Homeless students in public schools for 2009-2010 school year:

164 — Lawrence

13 — Eudora

11 — Baldwin City

Less than 10 — Perry-Lecompton

8,495 — Kansas

957,000 — U.S.

As students adjust to the rigors of a new school year, an increasing number of their classmates face an extra challenge: homelessness.

Since the 2007-2008 school year, the number of homeless students in Lawrence Public Schools has nearly doubled — from 97 to an estimated 164 during 2009-2010.

Meanwhile, school districts in Eudora, Baldwin City and Perry-Lecompton all had homeless students last year, after reporting none in 2007-2008.

The numbers are consistent with what agencies such as Family Promise, which offers housing for homeless families, have seen over the past couple of years.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Valerie Miller-Coleman, Family Promise executive director. The agency always has a waiting list to secure one of the four spots it has for homeless families. Currently, the agency has five homeless students in its program.

One of the mothers at Family Promise, who asked not to be identified, talked about the struggles her three children face.

Her children, ages 8 to 14, attend Lawrence public schools.

“Emotionally, it’s really hard,” said the woman, who’s been at Family Promise since May. “At first, my kids had a hard time because they were real quiet. They didn’t know what to do.”

The children balance school with concerns about housing and money for school supplies.

That’s where the schools come in, said Ellen Willets, who coordinates services for homeless students attending Lawrence public schools.

The schools help with transportation and referrals to outside agencies, and counselors assist with some of the emotional distress.

“That’s our job, to minimize the impact on their educational experience,” she said.

The key is trying to maintain some routine for homeless students.

“You want them to be able to stay in one school and have that consistency,” Willets said.

She points out that homelessness affected every school in the Lawrence district last year.

“It crosses all barriers,” Willets said. “It’s all across the city here.”

But an increase in the numbers may be affected by other factors, such as increased awareness, said Linda Troutfetter, social worker for Eudora schools. The district has seen the number of homeless students jump from zero in 2007-2008 to 13 in 2009-2010.

“I don’t know that I would be able say” that homeless students have really increased in the past couple of years, she said. The district has increased its methods of identifying homeless students, such as asking questions about a student’s housing status in enrollment questionnaires. But regardless of whether the numbers reflect actual increases in homelessness, Troutfetter said the district certainly sees more families struggling.

“With the economy,” she said, “we see a greater need.”

Kansas and the U.S.

A large increase in the number of homeless students is also being reported across the state and nationwide.

The numbers of homeless children in public schools in Kansas has jumped from about 3,600 in 2006-2007, to an estimated 8,500 this past school year, according to the Kansas Department of Education. Kansas ranked fourth in the country in percentage increase — 88 percent — of homeless students over the past couple of years, according to a new report by advocacy organization First Focus.

Nationally, the number of homeless students is nearing 1 million, up 41 percent from 2006-2007.

Miller-Coleman with Family Promise said there doesn’t seem to be an end to the rise in the alarming statistics, as every day she sees the struggles of homeless parents fighting for jobs in an extremely tight job market.

For the children at Family Promise, learning to stay positive and keep up with schooling — all without having a permanent place to call home — is a tough lesson she wishes they didn’t have to learn.

“They’re worried about things kids shouldn’t have to worry about,” Miller-Coleman said.