Tally of homeless students up statewide

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

The number of homeless students surged in some Ohio school districts this past fall because of housing woes and the faltering economy, a new report says.

Columbus schools had 17 percent more homeless children enrolled by the end of October. There were 798 this year, compared with 684 at the same time last year. "Sometimes, people are spending 50 percent of their income on housing, and they just can't afford it," said Mary Jane Quick, the district's liaison to homeless students. "I've heard about a lot of evictions."

Schools can be one of the first indicators of rising homelessness, because they count any student without a fixed, nighttime residence as homeless. By contrast, housing agencies call people homeless if they stay in a shelter and don't have other options, Quick said.

Nationwide, 19 percent of the 1,700 school districts surveyed had at least as many homeless students this past fall as they did the entire previous school year, according to a report released last month by First Focus, a Washington, D.C.-based bipartisan group that advocates for children and families, and the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

In Cincinnati, enrollment of homeless students grew 19 percent since fall 2007, First Focus said. Numbers have remained steady so far in the Cleveland district, but it experienced a 40 percent increase between the entire 2006-07 school year and last school year. "This economic downturn is having a tremendous impact on our children," said Phillip Lovell, who co-wrote the First Focus report and is vice president of education policy for the group. "In the midst of discussion about the drop in the Dow, companies asking for a government bailout and the size of the economic-stimulus package, we're missing the point that this crisis is having a tremendous impact on children and youth. And therefore, we're doing very little about it."

In Franklin County, the number of families who stayed in a shelter rose 7.5 percent in the past two years, said Sara Loken, administrative director at the Community Shelter Board. About two-thirds of that increase came during the past fiscal year. Statewide, the number of homeless students has been rising steadily since 2000. In Columbus, the largest growth has come because of students whose families were forced to share housing with another family or relatives.

In 2002, there were fewer than 10 students whose families were "doubled up." Last school year, there were 445. An additional 782 students lived in a shelter, 58 were staying in a motel, and about 200 students had been abandoned, were living outside or found shelter in another, unspecified way. "Economically, Franklin County is more stable than the rest of the state. But our numbers are increasing. What's going to happen in ... February, March?" asked Angela Lariviere, youth advocacy director for the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio.

A federal law, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, was designed to make it easier for homeless students to enroll and stay in school. For example, homeless students don't have to provide proof of residence, such as a utility bill or lease agreement, to enroll.

Columbus schools are receiving $350,000 in federal homeless-student funds for the current fiscal year, an increase of about $13,000 from the previous fiscal year. Statewide, $2.3 million in federal funds will be distributed.

Homeless-student advocates are pushing for a piece of the federal bailout to help support programs that help identify homeless students and keep them in their regular schools. Homeless advocates say students' needs will grow as more families have trouble finding housing.

"I think we're going to continue to see more families doubling up and a higher need for services," said Nick Bates, youth advocacy program coordinator at the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio.