Homeless student population to crest 2,500 in Fairfax County for first time

The number of homeless students in Fairfax County public schools is likely to surpass 2,500 by the end of this school year, according to school officials, what would be a new record for one of the most affluent communities in the nation.

Experts say the increase in homelessness among students, from kindergarten to high school, is related to the lingering effects of the recession. This year’s total will be nearly 10 times the number of homeless students counted in county schools just 15 years ago.

At least 400 of those students are “unaccompanied youths” who live without parents or guardians, another record, school officials say.

“We’ve been really challenged to keep pace with what our community has been facing,” said Dean H. Klein, director of the county’s Office to Prevent and End Homelessness.

Across the Washington region, which is home to seven of the 10 richest counties in the nation, the number of homeless students underscores a stark economic divide that has continued to grow.

In Montgomery County, officials said a total of 825 homeless students were enrolled in public schools last year. The total number of homeless students in D.C. public schools and public charter schools last year reached 2,946.

In Fairfax, where the median household income is above $100,000, more than 47,000 students are eligible for free and reduced lunches, a measure of poverty in schools. That’s an increase of 38 percent since 2008, far outpacing the county’s population growth. School officials so far have counted 1,336 homeless students since July, and the number is on pace to exceed 2,500 by the end of the school year. In 1996, there were 274 homeless students in Fairfax County.

Between 2005 and 2011, the number of homeless students in Virginia grew by 58 percent, according to data from Project HOPE Virginia, a federally funded program to help homeless youths.

“The numbers in Virginia have consistently gone up, and they show no signs of slowing down,” said Patricia Popp, state coordinator for Project HOPE Virginia. “This really is a serious, serious concern for schools and families.”

On Fairfax streets, the homeless include students like Anishia Johnson, 18, who has been moving between homeless shelters and halfway houses with her mother and three of her siblings.

“My friends want to come over, and I have to hide where I live,” Johnson said.

She works part time at a Target in Fairfax while trying to keep up in school. She dreams of becoming a singer like Rihanna, and she wears a pink bandanna over her hair. But Johnson didn’t attend the homecoming dance at Fairfax High School this fall because she couldn’t afford a dress.

Her mother, Robertia Johnson, 38, has been jobless since 2008, when she stopped working as a custodian in Prince George’s County public schools. Bills began to pile up, and many of her family’s personal belongings were auctioned off after she couldn’t afford the rent at a storage locker. It wasn’t long until she lost her home and had to use food stamps.

“I want a better life for my children,” Robertia Johnson said.

Kathi Sheffel, Fairfax public schools homeless students liaison, said her office aims to provide parents with transportation options, including Metro cards, gas vouchers and money for taxi service, to help students get to school when families move into shelters or other temporary homes.

“We recognize that for families with housing problems, school may be the only stable thing for these kids,” Sheffel said. “We’re sure that getting homeless kids a good education will keep them from becoming homeless adults.”

According to estimates from the Education Department, there are more than 1 million homeless students nationwide, an all-time high.

Experts say that the population of homeless students across the country exploded during the recession and related housing crisis and that it has continued to grow steadily as the economy has settled.

In Michigan, one of the hardest-hit states, the homeless student population grew by 64 percent from 2008 to 2011, according to data from the National Center for Homeless Education.

Each year, the federal government spends about $60 million on programs for homeless students.

In Fairfax County, organizations such as Alternative House provide supplemental assistance for homeless teenagers without parents or guardians.

“We were finding an increasing number of these kids who couldn’t work enough hours to keep a roof over their heads, so they dropped out of school,” said Judith Dittman, executive director of the Vienna-based Alternative House. She said Alternative House clients have included a teenager and her baby who had been spending nights in a Laundromat and another youth who was sleeping under the stadium bleachers at his school.

“Nobody wants to see these kids sleeping on the street,” Dittman said. “No matter how bad the economy is, we don’t want to see 17-year-olds sleeping in the doorways at libraries.”

One 19-year-old in Fairfax — a homeless single mother who asked to speak anonymously to address her situation more openly — said she has spent much of her life struggling to get by. Born in Russia near the Ukranian border to a prostitute, she turned to begging as a young girl and was taken to an orphanage. She was adopted by an American family and grew up in the Fairfax area.

Homeless since August, after she broke up with her boyfriend and left his house, she is now living in a facility for homeless youths without parents or guardians. She does not let anyone in her classes know that she is homeless.

“I hear girls say, like, ‘Oh, hey my life is hell,’ ” she said. “I want so bad to tell them, ‘Sweetie, I’ve been to hell and back. You don’t know what it’s like.’ ”

She said she is desperate to fulfill the requirements for her high school diploma while juggling a part-time job at a Subway sandwich shop.

An education means a future for herself and her 1-year-old son. She wants to graduate and start a career in nursing.

“I like helping people,” she said. “I was born on the streets, and I’m basically living on the streets now. But I’ve made it this far, and I can make it a little bit more.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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