Home(less) schooling

Housing report sheds light on the homelessness crisis among JCPS students

For Monica Robinson, the past six months have been a juggling act. Earlier this year she lost her job and was kicked out of her boyfriend’s apartment. Before long she was spending her nights at the Salvation Army.

Currently living at Wayside Christian Mission’s downtown family shelter with her two daughters, Bridgette, 15, and Alyssa, 8, she says she has struggled to hold a minimum-wage job while searching for a new place to live. As the end of summer approached and her girls prepared to go back to school, she worried about how she would buy supplies and clothes with so little money to spare.

Sitting inside the Wayside cafeteria during dinnertime along with several other families, Robinson says although it was embarrassing at first being homeless, Wayside has made them feel like family, helping her daughters by providing uniforms and school supplies.

“Just because you’re homeless doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or a drug addict or you don’t want to work,” she says. “You could be in a bad relationship or laid off. And it’s been more difficult for my daughters. They don’t deserve this, really.”

Robinson’s daughters are among thousands of Jefferson County Public Schools students who are homeless. It is a growing trend, according to a recent report issued by the Metropolitan Housing Coalition.

Since 2004, JCPS has seen a significant rise in its homeless student population, which the Housing Coalition report suggests has inflated by 50 percent to include more than 8,500 students in the district. That increase in homeless students is likely due to a continued lack of affordable housing, compounded by the recent recession, as well as the fact that the school district is doing a better job tracking how many students are living on the streets or in shelters. The report shows that almost 9 percent of all JCPS students had no permanent residence at some time during the last school year.

In the wake of those findings, local educators and advocates are demanding more affordable housing as a way to remedy this trend in the school system.

Leading that chorus, Cathy Hinko, executive director of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition, which compiled the report, says the numbers were staggering but all too predictable given the growing gap between wages and cost of living.

For the past three years housing advocates had hoped a city bill passed by the Metro Council establishing an affordable housing trust fund in 2006 would address that widening gap. Instead, the funding has remained untouched, languishing in Metro government due to a series of unrelated scandals plaguing the housing department. Housing advocates say they will propose an amendment to the original bill later this month to transfer operation of the fund from Metro government to a nonprofit agency.

Hinko says the fund was supposed to be a safety net that could have potentially prevented more children from becoming homeless, which appears to have an academic consequence as well.

The Housing Coalition study shows that reading scores for homeless students significantly lag behind those of other JCPS students. Among third-graders, for instance, only 37 percent of homeless students are reading at a proficient level compared with 67 percent for their entire class. The report shows one-third of the homeless students in JCPS are in elementary school.

“It’s what the numbers mean for our future that concerns me too,” Hinko says. “If 9 percent of our students in one year were homeless and it’s affecting achievement, then what about all our local goals for education? What about all our local goals for having a workforce ready for the 21st century?”

In 1996, JCPS launched its Homeless Education program to minimize the challenges associated with being a homeless student. The program gives families referrals to health and social-service providers, and offers free supplies and clothing.

“If they’re living in a shelter, the biggest challenges are transportation and the normal things other students take for granted,” says Janice Spicer, a teacher with the district’s program who works in its crisis center, located at Wayside. “Moving from school to school and shelter to shelter, it disrupts the learning process. Once they’re in a shelter or more stable place, the more services we can provide.”

The crisis center works with area shelters to provide immediate access to families with information on how to register for school, bus routes and tutoring options. It is often the first point of contact between homeless families and the school district.

This year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development expanded its definition of homeless students to include more than just children who are living on the streets or in shelters. Now, a child can be considered homeless if his or her family is temporarily residing with friends or family.

According to the Metropolitan Housing Commission report, nearly half of the homeless students in the city’s school district were living “doubled up” with friends or relatives, oftentimes in overcrowded conditions. Housing advocates call it “couch surfing” and say it mainly affects families at the recession’s edge, living from paycheck to paycheck, who worry about housing on a weekly basis.

Though the district has done a better job in recent years of identifying homeless children, Spicer says, the numbers are likely even higher than what the report shows.

Previous disputes over the definitions of homelessness created a data hole that for years left those children unaccounted for. The community needs to recognize working poor families who are living nomadically, says Khalilah Collins, executive director of Women in Transition, a group that deals with economic justice.

“You may have a roof over your head but it’s not yours,” says Collins. “It is stressful as hell to get kids ready for school by itself, but then to wonder if you will have a place to stay in two weeks, it compounds that problem. And the children are stressed as well. I mean, kids know what the hell is going on.”