Times Call – The Boulder Valley School District is seeing an increase this year in homeless students that local officials are attributing to a dearth of affordable housing.
Students qualify as homeless under the federal McKinney-Vento Act because they lack either a regular or adequate residence.
In Boulder Valley, the biggest increase in homeless students is in the “doubled up” category, which is up almost 70 students for a total of 179. Those are families who, because of economic hardship, are living with friends or relatives.
Ema Lyman, Boulder Valley’ McKinney-Vento specialist, said people moving to the area may have trouble getting jobs or find out it’s more expensive than they expected. Others can’t afford rising rents and are evicted.
“It’s tough here,” she said. “The numbers this year are very high.”
The local increase reflects a statewide trend.
The number of Colorado kids living in poverty in 2014 decreased for the second year in a row, but the number of youngsters identified as homeless doubled in the past six years, according to a recent report.
The annual Kids Count report by the nonprofit Colorado Children’s Campaign found about 15 percent of kids in Colorado under age 18 are living in poverty, down from 17 percent in 2013.
But statewide, the number of homeless students recorded in 2014 is 24,685 students — twice as high as its 2007-08 level. The data from 2014 are the most recent available.
“What this tells us is that affordable housing is becoming harder and harder to find,” said Sarah Hughes, research director for the Colorado Children’s Campaign. “You can be a family with an income above the poverty line but still have trouble finding affordable housing.”
Lots of couch surfing
In Boulder County, rents and home prices saw double digit percentage increases in 2015, earning local municipalities top spots on lists of the state’s most expensive cities.
Median sales prices for homes in the county approached $500,000, and average rents surpassed $1,400. Meanwhile, vacancy rates for apartments dropped to the lowest levels on record.
Boulder Valley’s homeless numbers saw a spike in the 2013-14 school year after the September floods, with about 200 students classified as homeless because they were displaced by flooding.
The district that year reported a total of 400 homeless students.
Most of the families impacted by the flood found housing, and the students were no longer classified as homeless the following school year — dropping the number of homeless students overall in 2014-15.
But, district officials said, once the flood students were removed from the equation, the district still saw an increase in homeless students, with a total of 255. This year, homeless student numbers in October were up to 313.
At the high school level, Boulder Valley’s Lyman said, she’s seeing lots of couch surfing. Students say there’s not space for them after their family is forced to move. Or they’ve been kicked out or leave because of conflicts.
Along with those who are doubled up with friends or relatives, Boulder Valley’s homeless numbers include students staying at Boulder’s Attention Homes youth shelter, in housing through Boulder’s Emergency Family Assistance Association or at the Safehouse, a shelter for domestic violence victims.
About 120 Boulder Valley students are living in a shelter situation this year.
“We’ve had more parents and family relatives dropping off kids at our shelter this year,” said Claire Clurman, executive director at Attention Homes. “The doubling up situation may not work for a 16, 17 or 18 year old. The lack of affordable housing is the elephant in the room. It’s a real struggle in our community.”
In the neighboring St. Vrain Valley School District, Luis Chavez, St. Vrain’s homeless education liaison, said this year’s homeless numbers are similar to those in the last few years.
St. Vrain counted about 530 total homeless students this year. Of those, 307 students are in the doubled up category.
Chavez said he expects to see more by the end of the school year.
“People are looking for a place or move in to the area hoping to stay around, but have difficulties for the most part because of the cost of living, not being able to afford a rental unit,” he said.
Both Chavez and Boulder Valley’s Lyman said their goal is to maintain as much consistency as possible for their students.
Students who qualify as homeless receive busing or other transportation assistance to stay at their original schools if they move out of their neighborhoods.
School and sports fees are waived, while a liaison at each school also makes sure the students have supplies for projects — and provide referrals for the families for community services.
“The bottom line is always the best interest of the students,” Lyman said.
Also providing consistency both for homeless students and students whose parents are struggling financially is The I Have a Dream Foundation of Boulder County.
The foundation is expanding into Weld County for the first time, raising money this spring to sponsor its first class at St. Vrain’s Thunder Valley K-8.
“We’re all the time getting families living in someone else’s basement,” said Thunder Valley Principal Karen Musick. “We have new houses being built out here, but they’re not affordable housing for our families.”
The Frederick school has a large low-income population, with about 60 percent qualifying for federally subsidized lunches, and about 15 homeless students — all falling into the doubled up category.
“This is the highest needs schools in the area,” said Lori Canova, CEO of I Have a Dream of Boulder County. “There are just really limited services there for the students and families.”
Across the schools it serves, she said, I Have a Dream is hearing from more families that they lost housing because they could no longer afford rent and couldn’t find a new place.
One family in a doubled up situation has five people sleeping in one bedroom, including children sleeping on the floor, she said.
“It’s just a huge stressor for children to worry about where you’re going to be staying, where to put your things, where you can work on your homework,” she said. “It’s so much for a young child to have to worry about.”
The Denver Post contributed to this report.