As families across the U.S. face job losses and foreclosures, there's new pressure on schools to serve a rapidly-growing homeless student population.
Many of these recently-homeless students come from large families where both parents have lost their jobs — situations where unemployment income or minimum-wage options don't come close to providing enough cash to feed their children. Foreclosures and evictions have forced families to split up among relatives and friends.
For some families, this is the first time they've needed to rely on government assistance to get by. A bulk of this burden is falling on schools to provide relief to homeless students, including meals, transportation and immunizations. But tight budgets and scarce federal funding have school districts scrambling to meet the growing demand for support services.
In many cases, the stigma of homelessness keeps parents and kids from acknowledging their status, preventing access to the help that is available. Homeless youth often fall behind grade level and are 50 percent less likely to graduate from high school than their peers, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. Ellen Bassuk, the Center's president, shared her concerns with MSNBC:
Homeless children are confronted daily by extremely stressful and traumatic experiences that have profound effects on their cognitive development and ability to learn. They tend to have high rates of developmental delays, learning difficulties and emotional problems as a product of precarious living situations and extreme poverty.
Unfortunately, the rise in homelessness is a national trend. California has seen some of the highest numbers: In the Vista school district north of San Diego, homeless students make up nine percent of the population — 10 times what it was in 2007. In Chicago’s suburbs, the homeless student population has jumped 67 percent over the last two years. A Dallas school district saw its homeless student numbers soar 185 percent this year.
Educators and homeless advocates are holding out hope for the new federal stimulus package, which has budgeted $70 million in grants for state services for homeless youth.
As homeless students scrape by, some may continue to dream of one day finishing high school and going on to college but for now, their more immediate goal is clear: to have a house and a room of their own.