Homelessness among school children
KEVIN JENKINS, The Spectrum
ST. GEORGE, Utah (AP) — Mike Carr officially carries the title "Student Support Services Coordinator" for the Washington County School District, but he's generally known by the much simpler label "homeless student liaison."
Carr, in his second year at the post, has the task of gathering and distributing resources that will hopefully keep children in school and able to focus on their studies when the stresses of uncertain living conditions outside the school weigh heavily on their minds.
For the resources to help a student, they often have to help a family as a whole.
"It's getting cold now," Carr said in early November. "There are those (kids' families) who are living in cars. . We deal a lot with the moms that are victims of domestic violence and end up in a shelter. If a spouse goes to jail and you lose that income, it doesn't take long to lose your house. We've (also) got a fair amount of drug-addicted people, and it's only a matter of time before they lose housing. And it's really hard to get housing with that kind of a record."
The WCSD tracks families who qualify as homeless on a month-by-month basis, even after they may have successfully landed on their feet with more stable circumstances.
Carr typically deals most with the hard-luck cases that are "really homeless," he said. The majority of families classified as homeless are generally living with another family — as rent levels rise and incomes don't, a relative or friend may be able to provide a place to stay.
As of Nov. 6, 727 homeless students were living with another family, perhaps in company with their own family but possibly on their own with the family of a friend, Carr said.
That comprises the vast majority of the 833 students Carr is currently tracking. And it's a slight improvement over the same date last year, when Washington County schools had 849 homeless students, 745 of whom were living with other families.
"We're up 1,140 students from last year (for total population). That's quite a jump," he said. "So even though our homeless student levels are about the same, percentage-wise we're lower."
In addition to students living with another family, Carr monitors the population in 26 other categories. For example, from last year to this year, students living in "inadequate" circumstances - lacking running water or other utilities such as heat - jumped from seven to 19.
But most of the students have obtained some member of assistance. Outside of those staying with another family, 47 are living with a long-term motel commitment, 31 are in a shelter such as SwitchPoint or the DOVE Center, and nine are "camping."
"Usually what happens (with those living in cars), from what I'm hearing, is the parent will find some place for their kids to go stay, and (the parent) will stay in the car," Carr said. "One family might be scattered to five different homes. They're pretty resourceful."
Those families who make it into SwitchPoint, the St. George city-partnership resource center that opened last year, will remain together. But they may have to hurdle some challenges in order to make it into the shelter for housing.
"There are five apartments for families at SwitchPoint, and they are always full," said Tim Martin, a member of the Area Public Affairs Council of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who also serves on the SwitchPoint board.
"In one of the units, we have two families because they have small children and, rather than be out on the street, they agreed to share," he said, adding that there is a continuous waiting list for a shelter that usually has 100 people on it.
"It's really a hard situation for an elementary school child, because they're in a homeless shelter where they don't know anybody. But it's still better than being on the street," Martin said.
The Spectrum & Daily News teamed up with the school district and SwitchPoint for the 2015 holiday season to provide assistance to K-12 student families in need.
In addition to SwitchPoint and Carr's efforts on behalf of the school district, members of the community find numerous ways to help students in need. On Nov. 5, a Boy Scout delivered a variety of hygiene products to Carr as part of an Eagle rank project. Carr also noted that at the beginning of the school year, the United Methodist Church delivered nearly 800 backpacks filled with items intended to help students be successful.
The vast majority of the district's homeless students — 510 — are white, followed by Hispanics at 180 in the ethnicity categories, Carr said. But the Hispanic students often tend to have both parents with them or are working and contributing in some way.
Some of the most challenging cases Carr works directly with are among the 80 Native American students, he said, because of single-parent family situations in which adult relatives are mutually dependent.
"The kids don't have any control over what's happening to them, but they can change themselves," he said. "You get those kids from well-off families who get a drug addiction - and they're gone. Or you get some of these kids who are homeless, and they're resilient and somehow they get good grades and they go on to become whatever they want. (The generational cycle of homelessness) doesn't have to continue."
Carr essentially preaches abstinence to youths as a key to their success - abstinence from drugs and, for the girls, from getting pregnant before they're stable enough to care for a child and themselves.
Martin said SwitchPoint is working on plans to build supportive low-income housing in St. George within the next few years. The center will be pulling together elements of the application for grant money that will include a description of what the housing apartments will look like and who will be served.
"We're trying to teach them self-reliance and a big part of that is getting them into housing. . Here in America, everybody should have housing. We need to get that attitude," Martin said.
SwitchPoint Finance Manager and Housing Specialist Sonjia Naron said the resource center receives grant funding to help 20 families with children under 18 find housing on a short-term basis while they prepare to sustain themselves. But SwitchPoint normally receives about 20 applications every week for the funding, she said.
Naron said that, as with all such resources, it's necessary to establish a priority mindset and begin by helping those who are the most vulnerable.
"For example, if someone's sleeping in a car and another person is living on the couch in a friend's house, the person in the car would be more vulnerable," Naron said. "(But) we're always looking for property management companies or property owners willing to work with us."
Information from: The Spectrum, http://www.thespectrum.com
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