The plight of the high school homeless

By Kevin Sieff
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.

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.

For the first time since the Education Department started counting earlier this decade, there are nearly a million homeless students in the United States, according to government statistics. Most drift with their families among motels, shelters and relatives' homes. But experts say a growing fraction are completely on their own.

It's a problem that has penetrated some of the Washington area's well-heeled communities. There are 439 homeless students in Loudoun County, 170 of whom are unaccompanied. Prince George's County counts 2,000 homeless students, at least 80 of whom are on their own.

In the District, 950 students were homeless students in 2009. D.C. officials could not be reached to provide more recent data.

The statistics from each school system reflect only homeless teens who have managed to continue their studies despite a lack of permanent shelter. Those who have dropped out are not included in these counts.

A 2001 federal law requires every district to have a homeless liaison and directs about $60 million annually to programs aiding homeless students. But the federal dollars cannot be spent on housing, which means many unaccompanied students have access to tutors and transportation - but no stable shelter.

In Fairfax, they stay on friends' couches, in cars or under stadium bleachers. Providing housing for such students has long been the responsibility of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. But that agency has a much narrower definition of homelessness than the Education Department has.

The result is that children such as Landis Brewer fall into that semantic gap. By the Education Department's definition, he was homeless and needed help to avoid chronic poverty. But once Brewer left the Reston bus stop for a succession of friends' couches, he did not meet HUD's definition, making him ineligible for federal housing assistance even as his situation unraveled.

The vast majority of unaccompanied homeless students spend time "doubled up" with friends or relatives. HUD considers students homeless if they sleep in shelters or on the streets.

"HUD has neither the appetite nor the capacity to house this population" that is precariously coping through the aid of others, said Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

"Because of the federal requirements, we've had to wait until they're sleeping in their car before we can help them," said Judith Dittman, director of Alternative House, a Dunn Loring-based nonprofit group that has relied largely on HUD funding for more than a decade and has recently partnered with Fairfax schools to house unaccompanied students.

With a surge in the homeless student population, school systems and community groups have turned to temporary federal funds, in some cases redefining the school's role as a welfare provider, both on and off campus.

In Bethel, Wash., a house owned by the school district has become a group home for homeless students. In Berks County, Pa., the district partnered with a Catholic community group to place students in host homes. In Maplewood, Mo., the school district bought a four-bedroom house for homeless students.

And in Fairfax, the Homeless Youth Initiative's program of rent subsidies to the system's most vulnerable students has garnered attention from federal officials. "These are the kinds of programs we're looking to as models as we try to provide for this population," said Barbara Poppe, executive director of the government's Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Aside from their lack of housing, Fairfax's unaccompanied homeless students have little in common. Some, like Brewer, are products of broken marriages and the rocky economy. Others watched as their parents were deported, or aged out of the foster-care system, or fled homes where violence and substance abuse sabotaged their studies.

Government welfare programs divide them into two groups, with titles as unadorned as the lives they describe: throwaways and runaways.

Loida Gramajo, 19, came to the United States from Guatemala with her boyfriend four years ago. Soon after they crossed the border, he started beating her and keeping her from attending school, she said. When the abuse continued after she gave birth to her daughter, Gramajo called the police.

Her boyfriend fled to Guatemala, leaving Gramajo, then 17, effectively homeless in Falls Church, with no choice but to work full-time to support her child.

In serving students as disparate as Gramajo and Brewer, the Homeless Youth Initiative - a partnership between Fairfax schools and Alternative House - has limited options. Most of the students use a $450 monthly rental subsidy funded by the federal stimulus package to stay in apartments they find on Craigslist.

That approach worked for Gramajo, whose subsidy helps pay for an apartment in Falls Church. She attends the Bryant Alternative School in Alexandria full-time and works part-time at a cleaning service to pay her portion of the rent.

For Brewer, the housing situation was more complicated. The freedom of living in an apartment with no supervision proved to be too much. Alcohol and other distractions complicated his housing placement.

"I wasn't ready for that kind of freedom. I realize that now," said Brewer, who is in his fifth and final year in high school after recovering from last year's disruptions.

"We're still trying to figure out how to respond to this challenging population," said Dittman, Alternative House's director. "People are often afraid to host them, and in many cases they're not ready to live alone responsibly. It's a delicate balance."

Still, the initiative is helping. For students like Brewer, who need both housing and emotional support, the program is persistent. When a spare room in an apartment does not suffice, a host home - like the one Brewer has since moved into - might do the trick.

"It's not just about helping them pay their rent," said Kristen Sorenson, a social worker with the program. "They call us when they get their report cards and when they want to share good news. This is their support network."

The payoff is easily visible, officials say: The majority of the program's graduates - some of whom once seemed destined to drop out of high school - have gone on to college.

But the tools now at the program's disposal - tools that didn't exist two years ago - might vanish as quickly as they emerged. With stimulus funding either spent or due to expire soon, Fairfax's program is already dependent on a mix of grants with uncertain prospects for renewal.

And as funding for these programs dries up, experts say, the need will not. HUD is broadening its definition of homelessness, but school systems' ability to connect students with local housing programs remains in doubt. Brewer, one of the first students identified by the program, could be one of the last to graduate under its guidance.

Brewer is already looking beyond graduation day. He has adapted comfortably to life in a well-kept Vienna home - and to the watchful eye of his host mother, Patty Holley, whom he simply calls "Mom."

But he's looking forward to leaving Vienna for college next fall. Before that will come a winter and spring of frenzied preparation. He has to stay in shape to impress Division II football coaches. He's been busy studying for college entrance exams and preparing a pile of applications.

Luckily, he's already written his college essay: a narrative that begins not long after an Xbox shatters in an empty Reston home.

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