Friday, December 19, 2008

In tough times, ranks of homeless students rising


SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — As foreclosures and layoffs force families out of their homes, school districts across the nation are struggling to deal with a dramatic influx of homeless children.

Some districts are seeing increases of 50 to 100 percent or more and are so understaffed that it is taking weeks to help the homeless students and families who need it, according to a new survey on homeless children. Educators say students without a stable home are at greater risk of becoming truants, developing behavioral problems and failing in school.

An estimated 2 million children are at risk of homelessness because of the foreclosure crisis and economic downturn, according to First Focus, a child advocacy organization that examined Census and economic data.

The number of homeless students in foreclosure-ridden Oakland, with 38,000 students, has doubled to 1,200 since last year, said Mathew Uretsky, the district's homeless coordinator. And he thinks the number of school-age homeless children is four times as high.

"We find children in shelters who are just sitting there," he said. "Sometimes we find kids who aren't in school right now because they don't have bus passes. A lot of children of day laborers are not going to school because their parents don't think they have a right to go."

Some families end up in shelters, or bunking with relatives or friends. Others stay in run-down motels, or their cars. In cities where rents are high, such as San Francisco, a family that loses its home may spend months, even years, trying to find another.

Alex Rodriguez, 32, and Rosa Estevez, 26, both lost their jobs — he at a car parts store, she an insurance office — when their companies left San Francisco. Within two months, they and their 12-year-old son were homeless. They wound up at Rafael House, a family shelter.

Estevez, who is pregnant, said their son is often depressed.

"We try to stay upbeat for him," she said, "but I've noticed that he is not as interested in school any more."

A survey of more than 1,700 school districts released Friday by First Focus and The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY), Washington-based non-profits, found unprecedented jumps in homeless students in the three months of the school year.

Most districts surveyed said they had identified more homeless students in the first three months than they had at the same point last year. Some 330 districts already have identified at least as many homeless students this school year as they did in the entire previous year. About 10 percent of the 16,000 school districts across the country participated in the survey.

But school district homeless liaisons, whose jobs are to identify and help homeless students, believe the numbers are even higher than reported, said Barbara Duffield, executive director of NAEHCY. Schools are finding it harder to identify homeless students because families new to homelessness often are moving targets. Many are not sure how to seek help or are too humiliated to come forward.

"Before this economic downturn, there was not enough shelter," Duffield said. "That is, the safety net was badly frayed. Now, it's got a gaping hole through which families who have never experienced this are falling."

Although the U.S. Department of Education still is tallying the number of homeless students for the 2007-2008 school year, all indications point to a problem with no end in sight, said John McLaughlin, coordinator of the DOE's homeless assistance program for school districts. "All across the board," he said, "in every state we got information from, there were some pretty big increases in homeless students."

The primary reasons for the surge are increasing joblessness and the foreclosure debacle, according to local and national homeless advocacy organizations.

"You've got dramatic foreclosures plus a million job losses," said Philip Mangano, director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, the administration's lead organization for addressing homeless issues. "We would have to be naive to believe that this wouldn't have an effect on families already struggling, and it has."

In this economy, there is no quick fix. Congress approved $3.9 billion in its last spending bill to aid communities ravaged by the foreclosure crisis, Mangano said. Advocates for homeless children are asking the Senate for $72 million in emergency funding for DOE's homeless children and youth programs.

The influx of homeless students also is costing local school districts. Federal law requires state and local school agencies to provide homeless students transportation to the school they began the year attending, as well as meals, books and other support. Some districts report that transportation bills eat up more than half of their funds for homeless assistance.

Cities and counties hard hit by foreclosures are seeing a corresponding rise in family homelessness. In Nevada's Clark County, with one of the worst foreclosure rates in the nation, the school district of 300,000 students reports 4,033 homeless students, double the number a year ago.

"We're falling in the same pattern as everybody else," said Myra Berkovitz, the district's coordinator for homeless students. "More need and less money."

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