Denver Post Opinion, Dottie Lamm – Although homelessness is a crisis for anyone, it is more of a crisis for children.
Whenever parents are stressed by constant moves — and often the joblessness that goes with it — their children become even more stressed, unable to control their emotions and less able to concentrate in school.
“Parents trying to raise kids without a home are often consumed by more immediate needs than whether a child did his homework or had time to chat about the school day,” says Jennifer Perlman, a psychologist at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
For such a child the school can become the true home — his or her only anchor in a sea of turmoil — if it provides extra nurturing, regular tutoring and consistency in its daily schedule.
Social worker Patricia Vaughn, a liaison who works with homeless children and their families at Lowry Elementary School in East Denver, says such children have to learn how to “do school” as well as learn their age-appropriate material.
Doing school means coming on time, bringing backpacks, lining up when told, asking for help when needed.
Teachers and staff have to become culturally sensitive. They need to understand the day-to-day challenges of homelessness. They are taught to avoid phrases such as “When you go to bed,” as the child may not have a bed, or “Around the kitchen table,” as there may not be a table.
Children who can stay in such a consistent school environment sometimes thrive, not just survive.
Vaughn tells of one homeless second-grader named Lee who arrived at school disoriented, disinterested and sometimes destructive. When, through coaching, he became the best tetherball player at his grade level, his confidence improved — and so did his grades and behavior.
Child development experts report that it takes four to six months for children who move more than once a year to catch up developmentally. And a youth who experiences continual homelessness is 87 percent more likely to drop out of school.
Of enormous help to homeless children, their families and the schools that assist them is the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act. This federal law, passed in 1987 and reauthorized in 2015, mandates that a child who is homeless — defined as lacking a fixed, regular, adequate nighttime residence — may stay in his or her school of origin, even if the family moves out of the school district.
In the Denver Public Schools Homeless Education Network, school counselors and homeless liaisons like Vaughan work to eliminate the educational barriers that students experiencing homelessness may face. And the district receives funds through the federal program.
Services provided can include school supplies, clothing, access to breakfast and lunch services, emergency basic-need items, and transportation so that students can remain in their schools of origin.
Recent statistics show that, in DPS alone, the number of homeless children increased from 1,302 in the 2007-08 school year to 3,175 in 2014-15.
With the concurring recession and the tightening of the housing market, no wonder so many are homeless.
In Colorado, it takes 2.7 jobs at minimum wage to rent the most basic two-bedroom home. So a huge challenge for a two-parent family becomes an impossibility for a single parent. They cannot do it without assistance. Yet, Colorado is one of only four states without a permanent source of funding to assist those who will never be served by market rates alone.
Many groups and individuals are working to solve this challenge. Here are two partial solutions that are presently in the works:
• As The Denver Post’s Jon Murray reported, the Denver City Council last month created a new ad hoc committee aimed at examining further solutions to homelessness and ways to pay for them. A new city estimate shows 13 departments and agencies are set to spend $48 million this year on programs and services for the homeless:
• On the state level, a coalition of developers, including Chuck Perry, Ken Hoagland, Joe Del Zatto and Susan Powers, have written a letter to business leaders making it clear that there will continue to be a problem with renters, workers, and people on fixed incomes being able to afford market-rate housing. They recommend the state step in to support increasing the supply of housing that is actually attainable.
• And state Rep. Max Tyler, D-Lakewood. Tyler will soon introduce a bill in the legislature that would make a portion of the state’s unclaimed-property trust fund available, for the next five years, to support rental assistance; promote construction, acquisition and rehabilitation of rental housing; and facilitate homeownership for low-income households. The bill would provide more than $25 million in the first year alone, not only to help stabilize homeless children, but their desperate parents as well.
Long-term statistics show that the longer a child remains homeless, the more likely he or she is to become homeless as an adult.
For the sake of our present homeless children and the at-risk citizens they may become, let’s get behind these measures and others that provide more homes for our vulnerable families.
Dottie Lamm (firstname.lastname@example.org), former first lady of Colorado, is a social worker and political activist.
Photo: Joe Amon, Denver Post file