Arvada Press – For Preston Jenkins, 12, watching his mom teeter on the edge of homelessness left him anxious.

“I did not like seeing my mom stressed out about it all,” he said. And “I was stressed out because we had to move and be homeless.”

Preston held on to happy thoughts — “when we get out of here and get our new place, I will have a new start and new friends” — to help him feel better.

That anxiety, along with tiredness, lack of focus and social skills are key factors affecting the more than 2,800 homeless students in Jefferson County schools, Jeffco district experts say.

But the district’s Community & Family Connections department, a team that helps connect students and families with resources to lessen the impact of homelessness, works hard to relieve those burdens.

“Children are little human beings, so they sense the stress their parents are under, and that can spill over to life just like for anybody,” said Susan Kimes-Demboski, the family engagement liaison at Golden’s Pleasant View Elementary.

For Preston’s mother, Lakewood resident Beth Thomas, who became homeless about two years ago after being unable to keep up with rising rents and experiencing financial difficulties, living in a shelter was her biggest fear.

But the crisis turned into the first step toward rebuilding a stable life.

“You really can’t fail in this program,” she said of her three months with Family Promise, a church-based metro-area homeless program that housed her and her two children.“With all the resources they have, it’s up to the parent to take advantage and be determined to find housing.”

The program provided support to help her find a job, resources and a way to normalize life for her two kids, Preston and Milani, 4. Daily these two watched as Thomas struggled with depression and worry as she worked to provide a better life.

“It took some adjusting,” she said, describing the stress of driving Preston to his Jeffco school from the shelter in Littleton where the family was staying.

Many definitions of homelessness

At school, the family found more support.

The district’s Community& Family Connections serves homeless youth and their families under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Improvements Act of 2001.

That act gives students and families access to basic rights and support necessary to ensure a quality education and that their basic needs are met.

“We try to offer a series of supports to keep kids in school,” said Jennifer Wilson, director of the Community& Family Connections team. “School may be the one stable and consistent thing in their life and, if that’s the case, we want to do everything in our power to make sure they have that.”

Each of the district’s 154 schools has a family engagement liaison who works directly with families who either identify as homeless or are referred to the district as meeting that definition.

This definition, including different stages of homelessness, enables schools and districts to help students attend school; enroll without proof of residency, records or immunizations; get transportation; receive free lunch and other school services; get access to clothes, food and hygiene products; enroll in Medicaid; waive fees; offer credit recovery; and have school disagreements settled in a timely manner.

“I’d like to say we’re making such a big impact that they’re declining,” Andrea Syko, a family engagement liaison at Lakewood’s Stein Elementary, said of the homeless student population. “But every time we help a family, we get double the new ones — I’d say I see homelessness increasing.”

A key cause is lack of affordable housing

Annually, Syko serves 50 families at Stein, most of whom she said became homelesss because of lack of child care funds, joblessness or, most commonly, a lack of affordable housing.

“There is too high of rent in our communities,” she said. “The affordable housing list is three years long, and families have to struggle and continue struggling even though they have everything they need to get a house.”

A critical issue statewide, the lack of affordable housing and skyrocketing rents are pushing more families, who once were stable, into homelessness, according to the Community & Family Connections department.

“That’s what it is,” Kimes-Demboski said. “It’s affordable housing — it’s not the lack of support or resources. It’s the lack of affordable housing.”

In January, the average rent for a one-bedroom in Colorado was $1,250 and a two-bedroom apartment was $1,480  according to a report by Apartment List, a company tracking apartments and rental trends. That amount is 6.2 percent higher than this time last year — almost double the rate of rent growth nationally, the report said.

Although less than Denver’s two-bedroom average monthly rent of $1,740, two-bedroom apartments in Lakewood, Arvada and Westminster average between $1,350 to $1,480 a month, a rate that for many families is simply not affordable, Kimes-Demboski said.

‘There are more just on the brink’

In January 2015, 6,130 homeless individuals were counted in the Denver-metro area through a Point-In-Time survey conducted by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative. Of those, 564 were living in Jeffco.

This year, more than 2,800 students in Jeffco have been identified by the school district as facing some sort of homelessness, a number Wilson said she knows is much higher.

“We think this number is low based on discrepancies in reporting,” she said, noting not everyone self-declares, situations change quickly, and families are constantly moving in and out of homelessness. “In addition to the students who are experiencing homelessness, we know there are more just on the brink.”

For Thomas and her kids, life is good now.

Both attend schools in Lakewood, and are enjoying time with mom in their new apartment, which Thomas found through program assistance. Thomas has been working in an internship with Jeffco Human Services and savors the little moments, like movie nights and homemade meals, with her kids.

“A lot of people judge, but you could be living the life one minute and the next looking for shelters,” she said. “But, if you keep positive, it will always turn out right.”

Reported by: Crystal Anderson

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