Schools Face Sharp Rise In Homeless Students

A growing wave of children are being uprooted from their homes, casualties of the nation's economic tailspin.
By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 8, 2009

The economic plunge has generated a growing wave of children nationwide who are sleeping in shelters, motels, spare bedrooms or even the family van as their parents seek to keep them in school. Educators are scrambling to help, with extra tutoring, clothes, food and cab fare.

D.C. school officials have registered about 462 homeless students this school year, twice as many as the same time last year. Schools in Fairfax County, one of the country's most affluent areas, counted 1,314 homeless students early last month, up 20 percent from the same period last year. Prince George's, Montgomery, Loudoun and Arlington counties have also reported increases.

The children are often scared, stressed or embarrassed. Marcus, a teenage PlayStation pro, rushes inside the Alexandria shelter he calls home each afternoon. Even his closest high school friends don't know his family lives there, and he does not want classmates across the street to see him going in. He misses the house his parents rented for three years, before his father lost his job as a security guard. He misses the bedroom he and his brother shared, their video game system -- now in storage -- even their chores.

"Everybody's got their house," said Marcus, 16, whose family shares a room at Carpenter's Shelter, home to more than 25 children. "I'm left out in that."

Schools, often the first safety net for struggling families, are emerging as a key anchor for homeless youths. In addition to their legally required free breakfasts and lunches, many schools also offer tutoring, give out backpacks and clothes, and connect families with community services. In Manassas a social worker has arranged for homeless high school students to go early to shower. Alexandria schools pay taxi fare to get 13 homeless children to school; last year they paid for seven.

The federal government spends about $64 million a year to help homeless students. Some in Congress have proposed adding up to $70 million to that in an economic stimulus package.

"One of the devastating realities and the collateral damage of the foreclosure crisis that hasn't gotten enough attention is that it affects our nation's children," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). "They get lost in the bigger picture."

By late fall, 330 school systems across the country were serving at least as many homeless students as they had the entire school year before, according to a survey by First Focus, a District-based advocacy group, and the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

One Fairfax family with school-age children recently went home to find that the locks on a house they rented had been changed and a foreclosure notice was posted. In Arlington, a teenager living with her family in a van showed up at school. Her mother, who had lost her job in Connecticut, had come in search of work.

"We're getting calls every day," said Kathi Sheffel, homeless liaison for Fairfax schools. "For any child in temporary housing, it's that worry about: 'Are we going to be here tomorrow? Is my stuff going to be here tomorrow?' It's not their own place, so anything can happen."

Marcus's father, Michael, who asked that the family be identified only by first names, said that he was working in security but that his hours were cut. The utility bill went up. His smaller paycheck didn't stretch far enough. In August, the five-member family put its belongings in storage and began sharing a room in a $70-a-night hotel.

"We just got behind," said Michael, who now has a job stocking shelves at Toys R Us. "It snowballed. We knew we were going to have to leave."

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