Imagine every K-12 student in Virginia, or the entire population of Dallas, Texas. According to several recent statistics, that’s the number of homeless students in America: 1.3 million.
The reasons for this crisis vary. Some students find themselves out in the cold because of their parents’ breakup, or because home life is too difficult to bear. Natalie is one case in point: She was only 14 when she found herself homeless. Her dad left, leaving her mother in a state of depression that ultimately led to substance abuse. “If she wasn’t drunk or high, she was gone,” Natalie noted in a research study conducted by Voices of Youth Count.
With mom absent, Natalie was stuck caring for her four younger siblings. She shouldered this responsibility for six months straight. Increasingly truant from school, she dropped out. As her circumstances escalated, Natalie too became hooked on meth, a drug readily available in her community. Her mom came back at home with a new boyfriend. After a fight with him, Natalie was kicked out. Now she lives on the streets.
Natalie’s story is common, and one reason for the rise in the numbers of homeless youth. Though she made the decision to drop out, so many others opt to stay in school despite their circumstances.
November is National Homeless Youth Awareness Month. Hard to swallow is this fact: The number of homeless teens close to home is far more pronounced than many people realize. Take the Fort Osage School District, for instance. Barely a few months into the school year, they currently have roughly 200 homeless students. Last year, school ended with 501 homeless students. Sadly, these numbers also include little ones in elementary school. Loss of a parent, incarceration, and economic hardship are among the many reasons these students find themselves without a stable place to call home.
“The number one reason is economic hardship,” said high school social worker and Fort Osage School District Homeless Coordinator, Deanna Rymer. “Most of our students find themselves doubled up with family members or friends. We maintain education here so that they have some sort of consistency while their family is going through a bit of turmoil.”
When asked if local politicians are aware of the homeless student crisis and working to address the situation, the simple answer is yes and no. “Politicians and policy-makers are aware,” Rymer said. “But there is nothing currently on the House floor to help.”
However, homeless students in the Fort Osage District do have a secret weapon. Her name is Iva Eggert, and she is the director of social services at the Health Care Collaborative (HCC) of Rural Missouri. Eggert is a vocal advocate for these students. She travels to Jefferson City to make policy-makers listen. “Eggert is a strong advocate in Jefferson City for our homeless kiddos,” Rymer said.
“It’s important for [them] to know that not every kid is mad at their parents and decides to leave home,” Eggert said. “One parent may move to one coast and the other parent moves to the opposite side of the United States. Some parents have financial trouble,
while others just have a hard time dealing with life in general.” Eggert sees each student to help them apply for food stamps. She also helps unaccompanied minors (ages 15-16) and homeless teens apply for MO HealthNet if they meet certain criteria.
The Fort Osage District has received grant funds to purchase supplies, snacks, and provide transportation, among other things. They also have an initiative called Project Normalcy that aims to help students feel just as at home and normal as their housed peers in the classroom.
“To help our homeless students look and feel normal, like their housed peers, last year I was able to purchase four lettermen’s jackets for our homeless athletes,” Rymer said. “If they need a Chromebook, then we’ll get a waiver to get them one. If it gets broken, then we’ll use our funds to get it fixed. We also help provide clothing for our students…It’s normal to wear a coat during winter, so our social workers will use grant funds to go out and purchase coats.”
Rymer said Fort Osage’s homeless student population has “amazing resilience. They are able, for the most part, to come through the door ready to learn. Our kids are super resilient, and they know that school is a safe place. They know that their social workers, counselors, and teachers really care about them here at Fort Osage. If something is going on that they need to process, I think they are comfortable with asking to see the counselor or social worker.”
Another positive is that the housed and homeless students coalesce without the stigma sometimes associated with homelessness. Students who are personally impacted by one of their homeless peers look to Rymer and others for understanding about what it means to be homeless. “We’re all one paycheck away from being homeless,” she said. “Our marriages could fail, and we could find ourselves doubled up with our parents. It is all situational.”
As the holidays approach, high school director of counseling Melessa Demo said one way the community can provide support is by adopting a family or a teen. With a fully stocked clothing pantry at Fire Prairie Elementary School, a big need is donated hygiene items and laundry supplies. Cash works great, too.
Rymer, Demo and high school counselor Mary Hay have another wish. “We’d love to have funding for an extra social worker. This is a [huge] need.”
For more information about how to support the District’s homeless student population year-round, contact Deanna Rymer at 816.650.7057.
To read Part One of this story.
Check out our video PSA about Teen Homelessness and share: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_i_xOfSpHI&f eature=youtu.be
Let’s spread awareness about this issue and support these youths by supporting our local school districts.