When I present to school groups, I always pose the same question: What images come to mind when you hear the word homeless? Inevitably, the answers sound the same, whether I’m speaking to University of Michigan athletes or elementary age students huddled in a circle on the floor. They think of single adults, often male, outside, asking for food or money. They think of someone who is dirty, wearing layers and layers of clothes, maybe someone pushing a grocery cart.
The truth is, the homeless are diverse – and a great many are invisible and forgotten.
Each day, I work with homeless families, children and youth as an education advocate with the Education Project for Homeless Youth. You likely won’t see them on the street or the off ramp of I-94. They instead are working or looking for work, figuring out how to get their child to school and how to get a meal on the table.
Many live in our area’s homeless shelters for families or youth, run by SOS Community Services, Interfaith Hospitality Network, Salvation Army, the SafeHouse Center and Ozone House. But of the 412 homeless children and youth served by The Education Project last school year, more than 300 did not stay in a shelter even one night during the school year.
Instead, these families live cramped in motels (where paying week by week with no utilities is cheaper then coming up with a deposit and first month’s rent). They live doubled up temporarily with friends or family – their children sleeping on couches or at times, the floor. Many of the youth we work with bounce from home to home to home, unsure where they’ll stay the next night. And some of the families we work with have to spend a night or two in their car or in an abandoned house with no heat.
You don’t see them the way you see some of the homeless living on the streets. But they’re there. And they need our help.
Families wait for months to get a spot at one of our local shelters, dutifully putting their names on several waiting lists, hoping they don’t burn bridges with their latest host and end up on the streets while they wait. They call agency after agency to string together enough emergency assistance to get into an apartment, but they often find the money isn’t there. They visit thrift shop after thrift shop in search of size 12 shoes for their teen or a winter coat – but too often lately, they find slim pickings. Our families spend hours trying to figure out where to get food and navigating each program’s eligibility requirements and necessary limitations. Is that one meal a month, three times a year? Can you help a fourth time?
To add insult to injury, support services for these families are limited. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (which helps fund emergency shelters in our community) more narrowly defines the term homeless than other federal agencies such as the Department of Education. Thus, by federal law, our schools must work with students living in motels and doubled-up situations, even while HUD only recognizes those in shelters or on the streets as homeless. In the end, the more than 300 children not in shelter lack case management and other supports that could help them end a life of mobility, instability and uncertainty.
Much is riding on our ability to respond to homeless children, a particularly invisible population in Washtenaw County. We know from research that children are resilient, but that the instability and chaos of homelessness take their toll. An estimated 75 percent of runaway and homeless youth dropped out or will drop out, while one in five homeless school-age children repeats a grade, twice the national rate for all children. These students face more developmental delays, anxiety, depression, behavioral problems and poor health than their housed peers, as well as lower academic achievement.
The Education Project, started in the early 1990s at the Washtenaw Intermediate School District, works to remove barriers to school success for homeless children and youth. We provide donated school supplies and pay for school-related expenses, such as school photos, field trips, athletic shoes and equipment, etc. We monitor the school performance of our teens and pay for correspondence classes that allow students to catch up and graduate on time. We pay for emergency transportation to school and coordinate school transportation that allows students to stay in the same school for the school year. And, when possible, we offer housing crisis support to the many families unable to get into shelter. We assess their resources, talk them through their options and offer referrals.
But like every agency serving the homeless, our resources are stretched by the huge increase in need. We are serving 30 percent more children than we did last year with no signs of slowing. For the first time in years, we have no gas cards left to give families to ensure their students miss no school and very little left in our emergency transportation fund. And we know the agencies we partner with are also struggling as needs increase and donations flat-line or decrease.
I have been heartened by the generosity of many this school year. Donations of school supplies hats, mittens and books have flooded into our office – sometimes from people struggling to make it themselves. This is the spirit that will get us through these tough times. We all must make difficult personal choices. Perhaps we must forgo a lunch out, buy more simple holiday gifts or cut costs in other ways. But we must find more ways to give more generously. The needs are too great and for me, they just aren’t invisible.
Peri Stone-Palmquist is coordinator of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District’s Education Project for Homeless Youth.