Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Homeless children a growing issue

Six-year-old Ryan Rush doesn't know his grandmother cries for him when he's asleep at night.

Ryan's grandmother, Georgia Naclerio, lost her home when she could no longer afford the mortgage after her husband died. She lived in her car for three weeks and eventually moved into The Shelter. Since she has custody of Ryan, he was right there with her.

He's among 191 homeless students enrolled in Leon County Schools as of January. It's likely there are many others who have not been included in that figure. During the 2005-06 school year, 350 homeless students were enrolled in district schools. Last year, 395 kids in the district were homeless.

Earlier this month, the district released an annual Residence Survey in hopes of identifying unknown homeless students.

Statewide, 30,883 public school students are reportedly homeless — nearly a quarter of the state's total homeless population.

"If you have one-fourth of the population as homeless students, you've got a problem in this state," said Tom Pierce, executive director of The Homeless Program at the Florida Department of Children and Families. "The issue is they are the innocent victims of homelessness. . . . It's going to get worse because of the overall conditions."

Naclerio went to The Shelter a week before Thanksgiving, and she never thought she would be homeless.

She said, "But there's nothing I can do."

Keeping accurate numbers is tricky

Tracking the number of homeless students is challenging, and the records can vary between districts, the Florida Department of Education and other agencies that track this highly mobile population.

According to the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act, students are considered homeless if they don't have a consistent place to sleep at night, if they live in motels, cars and transitional shelters or with family members. Students waiting to be placed in foster care are also considered homeless.

The Department of Children and Families considers children homeless if they are living in a shelter or on the streets, Pierce said. But he describes the overall system for gathering the numbers of homeless students as educated "guess work."

Kenyetta Williams, homeless liaison for Leon County Schools, said the district's records on homeless students are based on parent response.

Williams said it's possible the numbers are higher, especially if families are living with relatives, commonly referred to as "doubling up."

"Some people don't want to say they're homeless," she said. "They'll say 'that's not me.' It may be a pride thing."

That pride can get in the way of agencies serving homeless families.

"We still struggle to find out who is homeless," said Pierce, noting that DCF's numbers are based on what the DOE reports. "It's very difficult to try and get a true and accurate look at who is homeless."

Agencies statewide are working on a consistent definition, said Stephanie Shepherd, deputy director of the Big Bend Coalition for the Homeless. But that hasn't happened yet.

So far they know two things — the homeless population is getting younger and agencies are seeing more homeless families with children in the Big Bend area and throughout the state.

In the 2007 Homeless Survey Report by the coalition, the lead local agency coordinating resources for agencies serving the homeless, 218 families were determined to be homeless. That number was 150 in 2005.

The many contributors to homelessness

Officials agree the state's homeless problem is fueled by reoccurring factors such as a lack of affordable housing, limited household income, unemployment and poverty.

"The economy has a lot to do with the number of people who are struggling," said Clair Scott, a resource teacher who tutors homeless students in Leon County Schools. "If the parents are stable, the children are stable."

Agencies are scrambling to keep up with the need for assistance.

"There needs to be houses for people who work the minimum-wage jobs," said Kisca Smith, program director for ECHO Family Services, a transitional shelter for homeless families.

The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Tallahassee is $687 per month, according to the coalition.

Smith said she gets at least 20 referrals per week on homeless families in need. At capacity, ECHO provides housing for 12 to 16 adults and their children.

Pierce said DCF gives $14 million a year to the state's 27 agencies and groups serving the homeless population. He said Gov. Charlie Crist has put $243 million in the state's housing budget and plans to put in an additional $75 million to target the homeless.

But Florida's wilting economy has triggered budget cuts for state agencies and local governments, making the pot of money uncomfortably low.

"We stretch our resources as much as humanly possible," Shepherd said. The coalition lost $350,000 from the city's budget cuts.

When it comes to the school district, the transportation department feels the biggest pinch.

Additional stops and routes have been created. The district is required to provide transportation to homeless students so they can continue going to the same school they did before they became homeless, no matter how far it may be.

If more students become homeless in the future, the district will need to hire more bus drivers.

"If we have to yes, we will," said Ronnie Youngblood, divisional director of facility systems management. "That's one of things we continue to look at."

'Homeless students have so much on their plate'

Naclerio says that she worries about her grandson's education. Her daughter is in jail and she's had full custody since 2005.

From sleeping in her car to living in The Shelter, Naclerio couldn't provide a consistent place for him to do his homework at The Shelter. Since it didn't open until 5 p.m., he often sat on a step near the Tennessee Street building until it did.

According to the National Center for Homeless Education, children who have changed schools three or more times since first grade are much more likely to have repeated a grade or to have low reading scores by the third grade.

Adriana Schley, a 41-year-old mother of three girls, ages 14, 9 and 6, said she tries to encourage her daughters to do well in school. She didn't want homelessness to get in the way of their education.

"It's been a concern for me how they get their homework done," Schley said.

They recently found a better fit since moving into ECHO Family Services.

Now her girls can get on-site tutoring and case managers offer support ranging from life-skills classes to school supplies.

Naclerio also has found housing in ECHO's units. She and Ryan moved to a two-bedroom apartment on Feb. 6.

"I feel better now that I'm here," she said, while Ryan kept himself busy playing on the floor. "Now if I can just find a permanent place, then I would feel even better."

By TaMaryn Waters

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