Schools seeing increase in youth homelessness and unaccompanied youth

Plamedie Ifasso
The Daily Ardmoreite

Homelessness doesn’t just mean sleeping in the streets. While sleeping outside is a reality for many, the McKinney-Vento Act defines homeless youth as individuals who don’t have a regular, fixed and adequate nighttime home. Homeless youth might be living in motels, camping grounds, trailer parks, emergency or transitional shelter, abandoned at hospitals or doubling up with other family or relatives.  

Ardmore City Schools homeless coordinator Sabra Emde said the district is currently in the process of identifying newly homeless students and has already seen a 25% increase in homeless youth a few days before the start of the 2021-2022 school year as compared to previous years. 

The data is live and changing by the day, but Emde said Ardmore City Schools has already identified approximately 80 homeless students as of August 10 compared to previous years where they would typically identify about 40 homeless youth before the start of school.

“Last year, the total number of students that I had identified as McKinney-Vento for the entire school year was 174,” Emde said. “This is strictly an estimate on my part, but given where we’re starting the school year, I’m going to estimate that we’re going to have an additional 25% at the end of the school year, if not more. So that would put it at roughly between 200 and 225 at the end of this school year.”

Emde said a red flag indicating that a student might be experiencing homelessness is if there is a discrepancy in a family’s proof of residence. She then visits with the family to understand what their living situation is. The majority of the families Emde works with have lost their housing and/or can’t find affordable housing in the area and end up staying with another family member or friend. 

“Most people won’t identify that as being in a ‘homeless’ situation because they’re staying in a home,” Emde said. “But it's not their home, so if something were to happen, they don’t have a legal right to remain in that home.”

Once Emde clarifies what the family’s living situation is, the student is automatically enrolled without having to provide proof of residency, and she visits with the family to understand what resources and services they might need. Emde said she can help families get school supplies, food, clothing, hygiene items, activity fee waivers and referrals for medical, dental or vision services. 

Families can also receive assistance obtaining missing documentation such as a certified copy of a birth certificate, social security card or immunization records. Emde said she also coordinates alternative education programs to help older students graduate on time and connects families to numerous community resources. 

Emde said there are several factors contributing to the increase in youth homelessness. Many people have told her they have lost their job due to the pandemic and are now trapped in a difficult situation. 

“They lost their job,” Emde said. “They lost their housing, and now they’re stuck in a situation where they can’t get their housing back. There’s not affordable housing, and the additional unemployment went away. There are a number of different factors, and we’re just caught in a downward spiral right now.” 

The pandemic made it difficult for Emde to identify families who became homeless throughout the academic year and over the summer. A large number of students attended school virtually last year, and the district was able to provide some students with Chromebooks and a hotspot. But the hotspots were recalled due to an issue with a grant, so some students lost their Wi-Fi access. 

“We were in constant attempt mode and outreach mode, trying to get in touch with the students to find out what we needed to do,” Emde said. “But then we couldn't get in touch with them. We would send them an email on their school email, but they didn't have access so they couldn’t answer our email.” 

Jennifer Mays-Krimmer, intervention coordinator for Dickson Public Schools, said that since the district offered in person classes last year, they didn’t have trouble identifying newly homeless students. 

“I have not had that big of a problem keeping track of those families because most of those students still came to school last year,” Mays-Krimmer said. “We were open all year, and most of those students were still being sent to schools, so they could eat.” 

Over this past year, Mays-Krimmer said the district has seen an increase in unaccompanied homeless older students. These students are typically living in a park or in their car.

‘It’s not that we’ve never seen kids that are unaccompanied youth,” Mays-Krimmer said. “We have, but last year, we saw a few more than we’re used to. They were coming to us saying ‘I don’t live with my family. I don’t live with my parents, and I don’t have a place to stay.’” 

Mays-Krimmer said Dickson Public Schools were able to keep track of homeless students and offer assistance because the school provided in-person learning last year.

Most of the unaccompanied youth are high school students, and some of them were income earners for their families and lost their jobs due to COVID. There were other instances where the parents had to move, but the student didn’t want to leave, Mays-Krimmer said. 

“My thought is when places shut down, and people lost jobs, maybe [parents] were moving to places where they could work,” Mays-Krimmer said. “The students were also having to do the same thing.” 

Mays-Krimmer said for this academic year, the focus is to be individualized when dealing with homeless students. The district did an in-person enrollment to bring in as many families as possible, and Mays-Krimmer said 193 out of 1,300 students did not come to enrollment. But she was able to get in contact with each of those students and their families. 

“What we’re trying to do is meet people where they’re at,” Mays-Krimmer said. “So if [an email] is not a good form of communication, we can call them individually and have that conversation. If they need to come up to the school, or if we need to do a home visit, that’s what we’re going to do.”

In addition to affordable housing, Mays-Krimmer said better funded and available mental health and substance abuse services could help many families especially for ones where children are moving from family member to family member or in the foster care system. 

“If those parents had some substance abuse or some mental health avenues that they could take to get help, their kids could be back with them, and they could be working,” Mays-Krimmer said. 

This year Ardmore Public Schools is partnering with Ardmore Behavioral Health Collaborative to provide a district-based licensed professional counselor who is trauma informed and will offer assessments and services for students based on a referral process, Emde said. 

“We’re hopefully going to be able to provide some support emotionally for the students and their families who have been displaced, especially if it was a traumatic event for them,” Emde said. 

There are many misconceptions when it comes to youth homelessness and homelessness as a whole. Mays-Krimmer said when some people think of homelessness, they don't think about the children that might not be involved. 

“I think they forget that there are children involved in a lot of this,” Mays-Krimmer said. “Just because they don’t see them on the streets, doesn't mean they’re not struggling with this. I think a lot of people think that rural schools are not dealing with this, and we are. It may be packaged differently, but we’re still trying to work with those students who are food and shelter insecure.” 

Emde said many families sharing homes with other relatives are seen as lazy despite working hard to provide for their family. 

“I would say one of the biggest misconceptions that the community may have of those who are in a displaced living situation is that they're not trying hard to get back in stable housing,” Emde said. “I have so many of my families who are working two and three jobs, minimum wage jobs. They still cannot afford a one bedroom apartment.”