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Schools, organizations try to help homeless students

How do you do homework when you have no home? For 85 students in the Williamsport Area School District, that’s not just a hypothetical question, that is the reality of their day-to-day existence.

“Typically the last couple of years they (number of homeless students) have ranged between 70 to 90. Right now we have approximately 85 students, K-12, that are homeless across the district,” said Dr. Richard Poole, the district’s director of student services.

In 1987, Congress passed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act to aid the homeless population which it defines as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” The act also protects homeless students, their families and their rights, according to Poole.

A homeless student could be one whose family has been evicted and they are now living with a relative or friend, a situation which is called “doubling-up.” It could be that they have nowhere to live and are in a homeless shelter or staying at a hotel.

“We’ve had students who had to stay in vehicles at times,” Poole said, “because the parents have no where to live and can’t afford housing.”

Or, it could be that the child comes from a single-parent family and the parent is incarcerated, so the child has to live with a relative, such as a grandparent.

“All those are different avenues to homelessness,” he noted.

Williamsport is the largest district in the area and has the highest rate of homeless students.

“Our district, by far, has some of the highest numbers in the region. Unfortunately we have high poverty in the area and rent rates fluctuate,” he said.

Because of this, Poole noted that the district has a team of social workers, school counselors and trained staff equipped to step in to help the students.

“Our district has invested heavily in supporting our students. Sixty to 70 percent of our students are economically disadvantaged as well. Families are often struggling to make ends meet,” he said.

Identifying students who are suddenly without a home can be difficult. It’s not something that a child wants to broadcast, although they may share their situation with a friend.

Teachers in the district are trained every year to recognize what homelessness looks like.

“Sometimes students are embarrassed. They don’t want to come out and say ‘I’m homeless.’ They don’t want anybody to know about it, so it’s also finding an anonymous way to help that student. It’s difficult. It’s devastating for some students,” Poole said.

“Any student we’ve been able to identify as homeless, we put them throughout student assistance program. That’s a team that meets and says what does this student need,” he said.

Rights Defined

One of the rights defined by McKinney-Vento is that the child can remain in their school of origin for the remainder of the school year and that transportation has to be provided for the student.

“”It could be as simple as they are in Cochran’s service area and they’re now homeless in Jackson area. Even if they may not qualify for transportation, we will make sure immediately that we will get transportation in place,” Poole said.

He noted that the district has worked with other districts to find a means of keeping them in their school of origin.

“A part of that is when students get uplifted our of everything they know, that’s when they start to drop out. They don’t have anywhere they can call home so keeping the school of origin in place to support the student is important,” he said.

Under the law, districts are required to set aside funds to support homeless students. Poole said his department has some local funds and Title I federal funds to support families as well.

“That could be purchasing glasses, it could be purchasing clothes, it could be underwear, socks. It could be food. We truly do support these families any way we can,” he said.

Poole stressed that there are organizations in the area which help in supplying the needs of homeless students. He shared about a family that had “doubled-up” last week so that there were four children in a two-bedroom apartment. Because of that the four children were sleeping on the floor.

A call was put out to local agencies, such as the American Rescue Workers, to ask for help.

“Often those agencies will look to help out,” Poole said. “Even if it’s buying a bed cover to put over a mattress because they’re sleeping on a used one. It could be a bus pass. It really is meeting with that student and the family and saying, what can we do to make sure your child can get to school and they can be successful,” he added.

Food is always a problem. “If you’re hungry, you’re not concentrating, you’re worried about surviving,” Poole said.

The district partners with the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank. They also received a food bank grant two years ago to fund the backpack program so that students can have food over the weekends.

“Every Friday we make sure our homeless students get to go home with a bag of food that is easy to cook and prepare over the weekend,” he noted.

“”It’s a nice backpack, so it’s not identified as a bag of groceries that this student is getting,” Poole said.

The backpack program is available to all students who financially qualify, not just homeless students.

Another problem with homelessness is having clean clothing. Poole noted that if a family has to choose between spending money on food or on going to a laundromat, they will choose food.

“Honestly, sometimes students don’t have clean clothes. One of the things we see at the middle school or high school is they don’t have the funds to go to the laundromat,” he said.

That’s when the school might provide a laundry card or even, discreetly, wash a student’s clothes at school.

“We do it anonymously. People don’t know. It’s just taking care of that student. At times, it’s just truly breaking down the barriers for them to get to school,” he added.

Holiday Dilemma

As the holidays approach, most students look forward to time away from school, but for homeless students it just means time away from the one constant in their lives. On top of this there is usually a spike in the number of homeless students because colder weather and higher heating bills also come with this time of year.

“Over the three years, we’ve seen a steady increase in the number of students who are homeless. Winter tends to be a difficult time. Families can’t afford the heat. They can’t afford their bills. They’re being evicted,” Poole said, adding that now through January is when the district sees an increase in homeless students.

“For our students, school is the one constant safe place in their lives. It’s safe. It’s warm, and they know they get fed and they know there’s support and there are people that care about them. Thanksgiving break, Christmas break, they’re always hard times for our students. Everybody’s celebrating, but for a homeless family there isn’t much on the table,” he said.

Poole stressed that this area is very fortunate because of the number of agencies that are willing to step in and help the homeless families. From River Valley Health and Dental which provides dental care through their mobile dental unit, to groups that provide coats and gifts for the student or glasses for students who require corrective lenses.

“Truly we’re fortunate that we’ll identify a few hundred kids, K-12, over this period that will be supported through the generosity of organizations and banks,” Poole said.

Summer is another difficult time for homeless students as again, the security of the school is not there. Poole noted that many of the local churches in the area have stepped in to provide meals over the summer vacation months. Also, several schools in the region participate in the summer food service program.

“I think that’s something people don’t realize — how much support the community does give to us,” he shared.

A Problem That’s Not Going Away

The increase in homeless students in the area has been steadily increasing and it doesn’t look like it’s going to stop. When Marcellus Shale drilling arrived in the region, rents increased because the employees of the gas companies could sustain the higher rates. Unfortunately, others could not,

“It was an unintended consequence,” Poole said. “It’s a problem I don’t think is going away. If anything, we’re seeing it slightly increase. So, it’s a concern that this number of homeless students is going to rise.”

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