Area schools seeing more homeless

The number of homeless kids in schools across the New York state is on the rise. Nearly 20,000 stude

Geraldine Forgett has been living at a Salvation Army shelter with her three young children since being evicted from her apartment a few weeks ago. The 49-year-old Schenectady woman lost her job as a food server at Ellis Hospital when the Department of Social Services grant funding the position wasn’t renewed.

Forgett said she and the kids, ages 7, 9 and 11, are doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances. “You have to have patience — being in the same room all the time, sleeping in the same room. They do get on each other’s nerves,” she said.

She said she hopes to find a new job and apartment by September so the kids can be out of the shelter by the time school starts.

The number of homeless kids in schools across the New York state is on the rise. Nearly 20,000 students were classified as homeless in the 2009-2010 school, year compared with about 12,000 in the 2007-08 year, according to state Department of Education data.

Local school districts also have seen an increase of homeless students. About 1,500 students in a 35-school district area analyzed by The Sunday Gazette were considered homeless in the 2009-2010 — up from 900 in 2007-08.

Schenectady City School District’s homeless student population rose from 43 in the 2009-2010 year to 72 in 2010-11, according to James Goyette, supervisor of attendance. In Fonda-Fultonville, the homeless population nearly doubled, from 19 to 33 from 2007 to 2010.

“We have a lot of families who live on the edge,” said Fonda-Fultonville Superintendent James Hoffman. “All you need is a little push and you fall off a cliff.”

Effect on child

Not surprisingly, homelessness can have a negative effect on a child’s academic success, said Jared Stein, associate director for the New York State Technical and Assistance Center for Homeless Students (NYS-TEACHES). Part of the problem is moving to a new school.

“Students who change schools are often behind by five or six months each time they change,” he said. Students have to adjust to a new teacher, new textbooks and assignments, new friends and classmates, in addition to a new home.

And students who are homeless tend to become withdrawn. “Frequently they’re trying to hide the situation. They can’t tell other folks, their classmates where they’re living,” he said.

The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which was passed in 1987 and amended in 2001 as part of No Child Left Behind, requires that school districts educate homeless children. The federal government defines homelessness broadly to include families who have moved in with relatives or youths who have run away from home and are staying with friends — often referred to as “doubling up.”

Students who are classified as homeless are eligible for free breakfast and lunch at school, and have the option of attending the district closest to their temporary housing or remaining at their former school. Home districts are required to bus homeless students who are staying within 50 miles.

In Schenectady schools, there are posters in every building detailing services available to homeless students.

“I don’t know if it’s increasing because people are more aware of the services that are available or it is increasing because of the economic situation,” Goyette said of the district’s homeless population.

During the school year, Goyette said he fields inquiries about arranging transportation for a homeless student about once or twice a week. Sometimes students come to him because they don’t feel safe at home because of domestic abuse. Some are angry with a parent and leave home on their own to move in with a friend, falling into a category called “unaccompanied youth.”

“We’re still responsible to transport them,” he said.

Schenectady’s population is pretty transient, Goyette said. People move from neighborhood to neighborhood within the district.

Even areas of the Capital Region that would seem more affluent have seen a rise in the number of homeless students. Ballston Spa had about 200 homeless students this past year — an all-time high, according to Dawn Howk, at-risk and unaccompanied youth counselor for the district.

She attributed it to the county’s growing population and the fact that people come to Ballston Spa for social services.

Rising rent in a tough housing market is another factor. “Some of our families found themselves homeless because they were renting from someone who lost the home. Someone lost a job and they couldn’t maintain paying the rent,” he said.

If people have a poor credit history, Howk said they may have difficulty finding an apartment.

The district received a $100,000 grant to deal with homeless students, Howk said. The grant helps them with school supplies, gym clothes and sneakers, and field trip fees. Students are also eligible for after-school tutoring programs.

Ballston Spa is also seeing a rise in the number of unaccompanied youth — with more than 60 in the past year — some of whom have been kicked out of their homes for bad behavior. Child protective services tend not to get involved in these types of parent-child conflicts.

“When I first started in this job, people were afraid they were going to get in trouble if their child was unaccompanied,” Howk said. “People now understand they’re not going to get in trouble.”

She said she thinks the economic climate is creating more stress on families. “We’ll offer counseling services, conflict resolution skills to try to help them work out these conflicts so they don’t leave home.”

Joanne Van Genderen, director of pupil personnel services for the Schalmont Central School District, said she’s seen a slight increase in runaways or what she termed “throwaways.” “The parents no longer want the child in the home,” she said.

Temporary housing

Homeless students more often live in homes than shelters. Among the school districts The Gazette surveyed, about 47 percent of homeless students in 2009-2010 were in families that had “doubled up” with another relative. Forty-one percent were in shelters and the rest are in hotels or other living situations.

The Mohonasen Central School District had 69 homeless students last year and expects to have 58 this coming school year, according to Chris Ruberti, administrator for student and operational support services.

“There’s nobody in our district that we’re aware of that is living in a shelter or anything like that,” he said. “There are many people living in temporary housing.”

Ruberti agreed that the goal is to provide continuity for the children so they are not shuffled into another district for what may be a short-term situation.

“The idea is these are all students who are going to make their way back to the district. Why have them leave the district for a short amount of time and then come back and have a gap?” he said.

The law requires schools enroll students as quickly as possible — even if the district does not have all their records or proof of residency, according to Van Genderen.

“We don’t want to be waiting around two weeks for them to track them down. We would obviously look for the records,” she said.

For students living in shelters, the staff tries to help the child with academics as much as possible.

The Salvation Army’s Evangeline Booth Miracle Home, where Geraldine Forgett and her three children are staying, assists children with school supplies such as notebooks and pens, and offers free clothing, said Director Marcy Hausman. The school bus will pick up and drop off the children in front of the shelter, which has a phone, laundry facilities and television.

“It’s pretty similar to any apartment they would have been in,” she said. “We don’t want any disruptions if we can help it.”

The City Mission of Schenectady offers child enrichment activities and tutoring for children if the mother is going to a job, job training or school to support the student, Denise Cokes of the mission’s Family Life Center said. “We do whatever we can to make sure they’re not falling behind so there’s a sense of normalcy during the transition to finding housing.”

The Schenectady YWCA domestic violence shelter sees about 300 to 350 children a year, according to JoAnne Rafalik, director of fund development.

Rafalik said shelter officials work closely with the Schenectady City School District to get these children back in school. “Some can go right back to the district. It depends on the safety issue. It depends on what’s happening with the parent,” she said.

While the law mandating that services be provided to homeless students is well intentioned, some school officials say it can be abused.

The McKinney-Vento act gives a lot of latitude for people to declare that they are homeless, according to Hoffman of Fonda-Fultonville.

“The onus is on us to prove that they’re not,” he said.

After two years of living in a so-called “temporary” situation, Hoffman said, he believes people should no longer be considered homeless. “Some people will let it go on forever because they get additional services,” he said.

Goyette of the Schenectady school district acknowledged that the law can be abused, with people moving from house to house, but said he thinks it’s a small percentage. “If we don’t agree that this person’s homeless, we can start an appeals process. In the meantime, we still have to admit the student.”

Ruberti of Mohonasen said that the district re-evaluates the student’s situation based on new information. For example, even though the parents may still be living with relatives, they may be contributing to the rent. At that point, they would be considered to be in permanent housing.

NYS-TEACHES said the number of homeless students may actually be higher because school districts sometimes undercount children. Many families are prevented from enrolling their children because they lack documentation such as a utility bill proving they live in the district.

Also, there is a stigma attached to the word “homeless.” People who are living with a relative or in some sort of temporary housing may not inform the district — even know they would qualify for benefits.

It is crucial to get these services to students, said Stein of NYS-TEACHES.

“The educational system is not only the short-term answer to some of the challenges these youths face but really the best long-term tool we have to help students from growing up and being in that same situation,” Stein said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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