Thirty-nine percent of the nation’s homeless population is children. There are many stereotypes about homelessness and most of them don’t leave room for homelessness due to circumstances beyond control. It is likely none account for children or youth.
The Alaska State Museum is currently showing a temporary exhibition of portraits of people experiencing homelessness, titled “Out of the Rain.” The portraits were taken by Jorden Nigro, who is co-chairwoman of the Juneau Homeless Coalition, alongside Scott Ciambor. Accompanying the exhibition are a series of brown-bag lunch discussions, including one Wednesday on student homelessness. The panel included Student Supplemental Services coordinator for the Juneau School District Haifa Sadighi, Auke Bay Elementary School counselor and liaison for students in transition Leslie Scranton, Yakoosge Daakahidi Alternative High School counselor and liaison for students in transition Kristi Buerger and Alaska Homeless Education Coordinator for the State of Alaska Kay Holmes.
The audience also included a number of key figures attempting to solve Juneau’s homelessness problem, including Nigro and Ciambor of the Juneau Homeless Coalition, representatives from Juneau Youth Services and Northern Light Church pastor Phil Campbell.
The schools play a surprisingly large role in the lives of students experiencing homelessness. In many ways, the schools help meet the emotional and physical needs of the student, beyond just the educational needs.
“We identify the needs of the student. What does this student need today, at this moment, to make sure that the student arrives safely to school and that the emotional needs of the student as well as the physical needs of the student are met and taken care of?” Sadighi said.
It is the job of counselors like Scranton and Buerger to identify the students and their needs and the job of Sadighi to coordinate all the services provided by other grants and agencies.
These needs are many and varied, from transportation to and from school being one of the largest and most difficult aspects with students often moving from home to shelter to home more than once in a school year, to providing breakfast, homework clubs and sometimes outerwear and shoes.
According to Sadighi, school provides “a sense of stability” for these students.
Scranton and Buerger identify these students and their individual needs and also deal with “whatever legal stuff needs to be done.” Scranton said.
There are certain goals they have, based around stability and consistency.
“We want to keep the child in the same school no matter where they are living,” Scranton explained, “One student would have been in four different schools.”
As Holmes later pointed out, a student may lose four to six months worth of education with each school transfer, so a student in this child’s position could have lost an entire school year. Issues like this might play a role in the higher incidence of repeating grades among students experiencing homelessness.
The way students are kept in the same school depends on the age and the ability of the family. If a family can drive their child, they may qualify for mileage reimbursement. If a child is old enough, they might be provided with bus tokens. But if there is no other way, the school district has contracted with a cab company to transport students too and from school.
Funding for transportation and many other services for students experiencing homelessness comes from the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, enacted in 1987, Holmes said. The act designates a homeless liaison at every school (like Scranton and Buerger), requires transportation to and from school of origin, has an immediate school enrollment requirement, prohibits student segregation based on homelessness and encourages continued enrollment at a child’s school of origin as long as that is in the child’s best interest.
McKinney-Vento’s definition of homelessness is what schools use for student identification, though students experiencing transitional housing not covered by the act may still receive support as is appropriate. The act defines a homeless student as one whose family is sharing housing due to economic hardship; living in substandard housing, such as hotels, motels or campgrounds due to lack of alternative adequate housing; living in emergency or transitional shelters; or who are abandoned in hospitals or awaiting permanent foster care placement.
Scranton, who works with elementary aged students and their families, said many families self identify as homeless or in transition because they recognize they need the services offered.
She also said that, if she suspects a student’s family is experiencing homelessness, she might talk to them about their situation to offer help.
Buerger, in her seventh year as a counselor at Yakoosge Daakahidi, says she has seen the numbers increase overwhelmingly.
“Sixty-eight of 120 students are homeless.” she said, adding that there are students who don’t meet the qualifications set by the Department of Housing and Urban Development or McKinney-Vento, but are still in need of help.
In that age group, the current alternative housing is the Transitional Living Program provided by Juneau Youth Services. The program can house up to 13 youth, ages 16-21, and also attempts to build independent life skills.
Based on the numbers Buerger provided, there is a greater need for transitional housing for this age group and it was revealed at this presentation that a collaboration between Yakoosge Daakahidi, the Juneau Homeless Coalition, Mariya Lovischuk with the Glory Hole and the Northern Light United Church for an emergency youth shelter is in the works.
Campbell said he saw the need for better options for students of the alternative high school and, while it may not be ideal housing, having a place to stay, especially in close proximity to the school, would remove at least those barriers to education.
Nobody at the presentation had to cite a study to say that students who complete their education were more likely to achieve success in life, so along with trying to get kids to school and provide for their physical needs by feeding them, a lot of focus is placed on providing after school activities for students.
Scranton said students hear “Homework, homework, homework” and might think to themselves, “If I had a home.”
Auke Bay Elementary, some other schools and The Learning Connection at Gruening Park have after school homework clubs which, Scranton said, keep the students in that stable environment for just one more hour. And they provide healthy snacks.
When audience members asked, “What can we do?” Scranton suggested volunteering at an after school program. The club at Auke Bay Elementary can’t serve any more students, she said, because they don’t have sufficient adult supervision.
Buerger, admitting her position at the alternative high school is unique, described her job as “Triage, crisis intervention all the time.”
“It’s like bonified social work,” she said, “but these kids are resilient, they are amazing kids. They’re my heroes.”
From getting to school each day to earning a high school diploma or GED certificate, the school district devotes a lot of resources, including grants from McKinney-Vento, Title I, allocations within the school district’s budget and other sources, to meeting the needs of these children and youth and ensuring educational success.
“The student is the center of everything.” Sadighi said, They are the ones that definitely drive the actions.”
But as the population of students in need of assistance grows consistently, the funding remains flat, Sadhigi said.
“From now until the end of the school year, we need almost $10,000 more just for transportation,” she said.
The best thing members of the community can do, Sadhigi suggested, would be to participate in some grassroots activism and talk to members of the Legislature.
“Maybe the voices of the people are the bell that awakens.” she said.
The Juneau Homeless Coalition meets every fourth Thurdsay at the Tlingit and Haida Regional Housing Authority from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Meetings are open to the public. Contact homelessness coordinator Liza Slotnick at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
• Contact Neighbors editor Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at email@example.com.