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The plight of the high school homeless

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Landis Brewer suddenly became one of a growing number of teens without parents, guardians or reliable shelter in one of America's richest communities. A counselor introduced Landis to the Homeless Youth Initiative, a partnership between the Fairfax schools and the Alternative House. Federal officials see it as a model for helping vulnerable students.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 27, 2010; 12:00 AM

During the first days Landis Brewer spent homeless, he maintained a facade of suburban comfort at South County High School, where the all-district running back with the easy smile was the image of teenage aplomb.

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But when he left campus, that veneer disappeared. Brewer, 18, slept at a bus stop in Reston and kept his belongings in a garbage bag hidden behind a bush. After his grades started slipping and a teacher caught him dozing off in class, the ugly story tumbled out.

Homelessness had come as a swift, unforgiving series of blows. First, his parents, whose marriage had imploded, disappeared. A few days later, Brewer came home from school to an eviction notice posted on the front door.

Suddenly, he was one of a growing number of teens without parents, guardians or reliable shelter in one of America's richest communities. Fairfax, one of only two counties in the nation with median household incomes above $100,000, counts nearly 2,000 homeless students in its school division - about 200 of whom are, like Brewer, "unaccompanied." The latter figure is twice what the comparable figure was two years ago, a surge reflected nationally as the faltering economy has undermined many families.

The rise has coincided with newly aggressive initiatives by school districts, including Fairfax, that increasingly are getting involved in ensuring their students are not only taught and fed but also housed.

Fairfax started an experimental partnership last year with a local community organization, using a $170,000 federal grant to subsidize housing for students. They typically live in apartments found on Craigslist, spare rooms offered by cash-strapped families or other accommodations located by the students themselves. Brewer was one of the initiative's first beneficiaries.

"We've got to understand that if these kids don't have a stable place to live, there's virtually no way they're going to finish high school," said Kathi Sheffel, the Fairfax schools' homeless liaison. "This support for just a couple of years makes the difference between a person being either chronically homeless or a productive member of society."

Fairfax's program was in its infancy when Brewer's rapid descent into homelessness began last fall.

Just over a year ago, he tore the eviction notice off the door and walked inside his nearly empty home. He tried to stay composed, tried to start packing his belongings in a garbage bag. He picked up his Xbox, a toy that until then had symbolized precisely nothing. Not privilege or normality. Just a toy. "I was always a spoiled kid," he said.

Brewer dropped the Xbox on the floor of his empty home, letting it shatter.

In that moment, "I was angry and confused," he said. "I could tell that my life was about to change."

Then he finished packing the bag and headed out the door.


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