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Homelessness continues to increase for kids

(From left) T.H.U.G. Life success story Jake, Devon (a T.H.U.G. Life board member in 2013), Garrett and Sara Rank, pause for a moment while readying their home for the Thanksgiving holiday in 2013. File photo

With so many social issues taking center stage on the nightly news, homelessness can sometimes be overlooked by the majority of people. However, that doesn’t make homelessness, especially for school age children, any less of an issue.

For many school districts in the area, homeless students are not uncommon. The New Richmond School District had 48 homeless students this year, while St. Croix Central had 19 and the Somerset School District had four said SCC Director of Special Education/Student Services Patricia Basche.

“A lot of the parents that I have met over the past five years have had a job loss,” she said. “It is usually an economic disadvantage that causes a student or a family to be homeless. When people become homeless because of that sudden economic problem that occurs, they often go to live with either friends or family,” said Basche.

Defining definitions

In the 2003-04 school year, 5,354 students in Wisconsin were considered homeless, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. For the 2016-17 year, Wisconsin schools reported over 19,000, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Nearly 2,300 of those students were unaccompanied youth, or students homeless and living on their own.

According to the 2016 report by the Homeless Management Information System, or HMIS, report by the Institute for Community Alliances, only about 10 percent of minors considered homeless are unaccompanied youth, but those few face greater challenges than other homeless kids.

These numbers can be problematic for service providers, beyond just the sheer amount.

A barrier, for both those experiencing homelessness and those trying to connect them with services, are the conflicting definitions of what it means to be homeless.

The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act — which requires every school district in the country to designate a homeless student coordinator to determine, track and help homeless students — says that for a student to be considered homeless, he or she does not have one stable place to stay every night and with safe and sufficient space.

This definition includes students who are with their family doubled up with another family as guests.

Over 1.3 million students nationwide were considered homeless by McKinney-Vento in 2014. The U.S. Department of Education reported in 2016 that over 100,000 students were considered unaccompanied youth in the US.

McKinney-Vento requires school districts to help students stay in their “school of origin” by providing free lunches and transportation to and from school.

“The school district's goal is to make school as normal for students facing homelessness as possible. Students are a product of their environment and they do not ‘choose’ to be homeless,” said New Richmond School District Nurse Joan Simpson. “Homelessness does not define us, it just tells us that right now they are poor. No one is above becoming homeless, it is within all of our capacity. A catastrophic event or loss of a job puts us that much closer."

The federal Housing and Urban Development definition — which many counties have to adhere to in order to receive funding for services — is more stringent.

On top of that, there are other state and grant definitions that providers must work with.

Certain programs or services are funded depending on different examples of homelessness.

Across the river, Sarah Tripple, with Washington County community services, said she and policy analyst Dana Dumbacher work with at least five different definitions of homelessness to secure funding and provide services.

“It depends on what funding you have and then make it work to the best of your ability,” Dumbacher said. “We cobble together what we need for who doesn’t fit under those other funding sources.”

At school

For most unaccompanied minors, just staying enrolled in school is a daily challenge.

Some students experiencing homelessness receive poor or failing grades, and many struggle with truancy or attendance, most of which they attribute to challenges getting to school.

Most school districts in the area help their homeless students by arranging their transportation needs, obtaining necessary school supplies, ensuring students receive free school meals, assisting in the enrollment process, working in partnership with community agencies to address student medical and/or dental needs, enrolling the students in the voluntary Happy Kids Backpack Program — which sends home backpacks of food and vouchers with students in need — if they are not in a shelter and interested for food security.

However, when school isn’t in session it gets more complex for students experiencing homelessness. Some schools try to ensure there’s programming or summer school for those months off. Others can also give food packs and supplies to kids when they are not at school to receive them. Sometimes though, this is where those kids fall through the cracks.  

They can give extra food, or supplies, but that only lasts so long. If they’re not in school, there’s not always a lot the school district can do to help them.

“I believe it's hard for communities to realize that homelessness happens in places other than the inner cities. Small towns don't want to believe their little towns would have homeless people, especially teens,” said T.H.U.G. Life Ministry’s Sara Rank. “They think if they are homeless they must be troubled or have caused it. It's very sad.”

T.H.U.G. (Truly Humble Under God) Life Ministry, which is run by Rank, is located in Somerset and works primarily with teens and young adults who find themselves homeless through no fault of their own and don’t have foster home or social service options.

“These kids are not in the public's eye most of the time. Schools many times aren't even aware some of their students are homeless. They blend into the background or don't attend regularly or at all,” Rank said. “If they aren't noticeable (like a sports star) then they can go their whole high school years without anyone noticing.”

Over the last two years, T.H.U.G. Life Ministry has helped 57 homeless teens in St. Croix County alone. T.H.U.G. helps with food, clothing, school supplies, daily living needs, a place to stay or help to contact extended family, etc. The organization has also assisted some teens to get into tech school, graduate high school or find a mentor in an area of their interest.

“I fill backpacks every month for many, with daily supplies, quarters for laundry, snacks and simple meals, gas cards, grocery cards, etc. We have had kids that needed dental care, doctor appointments, haircuts, etc.,” Rank said. “Each teen/young adult that comes need different things. I try to help the best I can.”

For more information on T.H.U.G. Life Ministry, contact Sara Rank 424 at 651-246-1323, thuglifesara@gmail.com or visit thuglifeforteens.org.

Vulnerability  

According to Simpson, students facing homelessness are also facing a litany of emotions from embarrassment to humiliation, not to mention a loss of privacy and choice.

“Homeless children often feel humiliated, embarrassed, a loss of privacy and a loss of choice. Some issues homeless students face include: sleeplessness, loss of homework, no school supplies, lack of food, attendance concerns, unmet medical and/or dental needs, fatigue, poor hygiene and disorganization,” Simpson said.

Before becoming homeless, one third of youth up to 24-years-old remained in an abusive situation because they felt they had nowhere else to go.

Around 90 percent of young people facing homelessness have come from a background with some kind of trauma, such as sexual abuse, living with a substance abuser, having been in foster care homes or having an incarcerated parent. The majority also have serious or chronic mental health issues. The HMIS shows that in Wisconsin, transgender and LGBT youth are even more disproportionately affected.

Breaking the cycle

Homeless student coordinators and community services providers say the largest barrier for homeless youth is that there’s a shortage of affordable housing or shelters.

“One of the things that I have seen is that there is not a lot of homes or apartments available for these people. When they become homeless, it can be very difficult for them to find affordable housing in this area,” Basche said. “People seem to do fine as far as finding food, getting a job, finding clothing and all that kind of stuff. But the affordable housing in this area definitely seems to be a major barrier for them. They can find housing, and even when they get jobs, but there is not excess money for them to afford most housing.”

To make matters more difficult for them, Plaster said, homeless youth are more susceptible to engaging in "survival crime" such as petty theft, trespassing, loitering, “things that if those young people had a home wouldn’t be doing,” she said. “And now they have a criminal record and they have a harder time finding housing.”

Brian Kiley, director of homelessness ministry with CityGate, said homelessness can be an ugly cycle.

“Today’s homeless youth are tomorrow’s homeless (adults),” Kiley said.

As kids graduate high school or age-out of foster care, the services they depended on are evaporating, and many fall through the cracks.

The services offered today, though helpful, are often more or less serving as a band-aid to the problem, Kiley said. It takes systemic change to break the cycle.

Part of that change could be what’s known as the housing first approach.

Once they have a place to live — to unpack their bag — they are more likely to ask for help, Kiley said.

The housing first approach, Kiley said, can be the one to get kids out of what could become a lifetime cycle of homelessness.

Although the services offered through the agencies are helpful and keep homeless youth as safe as they can, most providers know they are just putting a bandaid on a systemic problem.

Many of them recognized the lack of affordable housing and willingness of certain agencies to put resources in to those barriers are the largest barrier to housing homeless youth.

Last year, the Wisconsin State Legislature took steps to start combating homelessness head on, writing into law the Interagency Council on Homelessness at the end of the 2017 session.

Homelessness numbers

New Richmond

Number of homeless students (2017-2018 school year): 48; 10 homeless students at the high school, nine at the middle school and 29 at the elementary school.

The number of homeless students in the school district has gone up since the Grace Place Shelter moved to New Richmond in 2014.

Somerset

Number of homeless students (2017-2018 school year): four; one at the high school, three at the elementary school.

The number of homeless students has dropped over the last few years since the Grace Place Shelter moved out of the district.

St. Croix Central

Number of homeless students (2017-2018 school year): 19; five at the high school.

The number of homeless students has gone up over the last 10 years or so, although, the upward trends seems to have stabilized.

T.H.U.G. Life Ministry (deals exclusively with teens/adults)

Number of homeless students: Over the last two years, the organization has helped 57 homeless teens from St. Croix County, 39 from Polk County, 29 from Washington County and 17 from Ramsey County. These ranged from kids who needed one-time help to some who stayed with the organization through graduation.

Jordan Willi
Jordan Willi is a reporter for the New Richmond News. Previously, he worked as a sports reporter at the Worthington Daily Globe in Worthington, Minnesota. He also interned at the Hudson Star Observer for two summers and contributed to the Bison Illustrated sports magazine at North Dakota State University.
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