CLOSE TO HOME e-News – As Jeffco students head back to school this week, the school district is gearing up to help students navigate the extraordinary challenges of gaining an education while they are homeless. Last year more than 2,700 students were identified as being homeless.
“I’m constantly met with shock about the high number of students experiencing homelessness across the district,” said Jennifer Hope Wilson, the Community and Family Connections Coordinator for Jeffco Public Schools. “I often hear ‘not in Jeffco’, but I have yet to do a report on a school where there isn’t at least one student identified as homeless.”
As the Atlantic reported earlier this summer, students without a safe place to call home are more likely to do poorly in class and more likely to drop out of school altogether, which means they are less likely to go to college, to find good employment, and to lead productive adult lives. The graduation rate for Jeffco students experiencing homelessness is about 20% lower than for the district as a whole.
Over the past decade, the number of homeless students in Metro Denver has increased an unfathomable 322%.
The newly passed federal education law Every Student Succeeds Act focuses on increasing awareness of homeless students, though it likely won’t result in much change here. Colorado is one of five states that was already tracking and compiling data on the number of students affected by homelessness.
To be sure, there are challenges in identifying students and their families who don’t have a stable home, says Wilson. “Families can be leery about sharing their housing information with anyone, given stigmas and stereotypes associated with homelessness, as well as the fear that they could be reported to Child Protective Services. However, we often find that the children and/or adults will identify someone they trust at the schools who they feel safe enough to share their situation with. We typically have referrals from the first to the last day of school.”
The bigger challenge, she says, is how to make a meaningful difference once students have been identified.
“We provide several supportive services,” said Wilson, “from school supplies to enrollment advocacy, tutoring, transportation, free lunch and emergency food supplies, waiving or covering fees, health care coverage enrollment and troubleshooting assistance, social and emotional supports, and even making sure they have a cap and gown for graduation.”
While these efforts provide a helpful hand up she says, “The reality is that after we identify students and provide them with support around their academics and basic needs, there may be little we can do to get them into shelter or housing given limited shelter beds, long waitlists, and a lack of affordable housing options. If a student doesn’t have fixed, regular, and adequate shelter it’s difficult to imagine them being able to focus their full attention and energy on their education, though to be fair, many of our students still do!”
When asked what can be done, Wilson doesn’t mince words. “After a family has exhausted every single resource and relationship for assistance, they might find themselves going at it alone. Without any supports or community to lean on, it’d be hard for anyone to get back on their feet. We all need to feel a sense of belonging, place, and purpose in life. I can only imagine that a real and lasting solution to homelessness would involve shifting from a mindset of giving money/gifts/time to something much more active and intentional – living in close community with one another to ensure that everyone has a network of people who care about them, authentic supporters who they can ride out life’s many storms with.”
LET US HEAR FROM YOU ON How to Increase Understanding, Reduce the Homeless Stigma in Schools
The stigma of being homeless begins early. Jennifer Hope Wilson says, for example, that while weekend food supplement programs do well in elementary schools, by middle school kids “offload” the food so that their peers don’t know their circumstances and look down on them.
To our knowledge, a platform like CLOSE TO HOME doesn’t exist in many – if any – schools. Do you know of programs or pathways that intentionally lift up young people who are homeless or have experienced homelessness? Do these efforts provide students experiencing homelessness with a seat at the table and an ability to share their personal stories as a way to increase understanding and acceptance within their school community?
Please share what you know about existing efforts that are similar, as well as your ideas on new pathways that might be good avenues through which to expand Close to Home into schools. Please send your information and suggestions to us at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for your efforts to help #makehomelessnesshistory!