Where do they call home? When kids face homelessness

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By Rebecca Mariscal and Katie Nelson

Families visiting Hudson Prairie Elementary School to pick up food were welcomed by a line of resources as they walked the hallway — organizations reaching out to help them.

Hosted by the Hudson Backpack Program, Wednesday's grocery pick up was the first of several that will be held this summer.To mark the first one of the summer, other community organizations including the Hudson YMCA, Operation Help, the Hudson Food Shelf, The Giving Tree, At Youth Risk Resource Committee and Kiwanis joined the Backpack Program to show families where they can find assistance with food, housing and more.

These programs are a vital resource for many families facing different degrees of financial struggle.

READ MORE: From 'Oh' to 'Woah': new Y Teen Center open to communityVisitors spent $48 million in Hudson in 2017

Together the Hudson School District and community organizations like these work to make sure all students have their needs met and can receive an equal education.

This support is especially important for students facing homelessness, more than 70 in the district during the 2016-17 school year.

Defining definitions

Homelessness in the student population is a growing issue in Wisconsin. In the 2003-04 school year, 5,354 students were considered homeless. In the 2016-17 year, that number rose to more than 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 Institute for Community Alliances' Homeless Management Information System, or HMIS, only about 10 percent of minors considered homeless are unaccompanied youth, but those few people face greater challenges than other kids facing homelessness with their families.

In the Hudson School District, 72 students were homeless in the 2016-17 school year, with 37 at the elementary level, 11 at the middle school and 24 at the high school. The district doesn't see a high number of unaccompanied youths.

These numbers are an increase from the 2011-12 school year, but Erin Schiltgen, Hudson chief of schools officer and homeless liaison, said the district has stayed around this number since the 2011-12 school year.

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 — states that for a student to be considered homeless, he or she does not have one stable place to stay every night with safe and sufficient space.

This definition includes students who are with their family doubled up with another family as guests. This is the most common type of homeless Hudson School District sees, Schiltgen said.

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" — or the school last attended before becoming homeless — by providing free lunches and transportation to and from school.

"The basis behind McKinney-Vento is making sure kids have a continuous education instead of bouncing from district to district to district, which is where that transportation piece becomes really key," Schiltgen said.

The federal Housing and Urban Development definition of homelessness — the one 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.

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."

"You know what you're working with and find what you can," Tripple added.

The numbers also don't account for the number of people on the verge of homelessness, some just one paycheck away.

The United Way's 2014 ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) report shows 42 percent of Wisconsin households struggle with financial survival. Of that 42 percent, 13 live in poverty, and 29 percent fall into the category of ALICE defined as households above the federal poverty line who still struggle to afford basic needs of housing, child care, food, transportation and healthcare.

At school

Social workers serve as the primary contact the district has with homeless students. Schiltgen said they work to both identify homeless students and provide support and resources to the students and their families.

Identifying homeless students can start when a school secretary is informed of a student changing addresses or doubling up with a family. Social workers then reach out to set up transportation or other needs before a lag in attendance occurs.

The Hudson School District provides identified homeless students with continued enrollment, free school meals and transportation, and it also waives school fees. It also has a closet to fill students' clothing needs, and a Bridging Brighter Smiles program for dental care right within the school.

Beyond district-resources school social workers connect students and families with a variety of county and community resources to help fill needs like clothing and food.

"Our social workers are amazing at providing resources, more community-based resources, to fill those basic needs," Schiltgen said.

Thanks to the work of these social workers, Schiltgen said most of the district's homeless students are attending school regularly.

"Education is still important to these families," Schiltgen said. "So it's usually some sort of barrier as to why they're not attending."

When school ends for the summer the situation can get more complex for students experiencing homelessness.

Hudson students still have access to organizations like the Hudson Backpack Program as well as a free summer school program to provide some activities and structure.

Impact on students

School counselors are another resource for homeless students, Schiltgen said, when it comes to more complex emotional needs and difficult situations.

"Just providing kids a safe adult to connect with, a safe space to go to, cause yeah life can be pretty chaotic for a lot of these students," Schiltgen said.

For many, school is the constant in their lives.

"That's what we're working to provide," Schiltgen said. "That it's a safe place to be and we try to get kids connected to as many adults as possible."

New Richmond District School Nurse Joan Simpson said students facing homelessness are also facing a litany of emotions from embarrassment to humiliation, not to mention a loss of privacy and choice.

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

The Link, an outreach group in Dakota County, works mostly with youth 18 to 24, seeing many at a drop in Center in Apple Valley, Minn.

"We try to provide them with whatever they're in need of ... to make their situation a little safer than it is," The Link's Stephanie Plaster said.

Staff provide whatever a person needs to stay safe and healthy while on their own, such as food, laundry facilities, clean clothes, gift cards for gas, hygiene products.

"Shelters can be scary for people," Plaster said. "Some people want to engage in survival sex rather than go to a shelter."

In these cases, she said they will provide condoms, pregnancy tests and safe sex kits as well.

Barriers

Financial issues in the family are the driving factor behind Hudson homelessness numbers, Schiltgen said.

"Some families, even if a parent is working, making ends meet can be difficult," she said.

Transportation is a barrier for many homeless students and families. The district uses a lot of taxi vouchers to ensure students can get to and from school, but without a public transportation system in the area, many families struggle with other transportation needs.

"Even accessing some of the community resources can be a challenge too," Schiltgen said.

Most homeless student coordinators and community services providers tend to agree the largest barrier for homeless youth is the shortage of access to affordable housing or shelters.

Therese Gilbertson, clinical supervisor with Washington County, said both are lacking.

"When I first started, I think I would have put a shelter in the first priority," she said. "But affordable housing is at the same (position) now."

Hudson sees this lack of affordable housing as well, Schiltgen said.

Those who can access affordable housing don't always fall into the homelessness definition, but still struggle with consistency.

"Families are often kind of transient between affordable housing to affordable housing to affordable housing," Schiltgen said. "So they aren't necessarily considered homeless but that means they're kind of bouncing from school to school to school."

To make matters more difficult for homeless students, when they start out homeless so young, their record follows them.

Plaster said homeless youth often engage in a lot of "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.

Breaking the cycle

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.

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.

At the local level, the district and the community continue to work to create what Schiltgen said is necessary equity and access to ensure the students in the community have a similar school experience.

"Some kids need a little more support, whether that's from school or community," Schiltgen said. "They're all our kids."