Homelessness takes many faces in the community. but one many people may not see or know exists is the number of homeless students found locally in the district and the hurdles they face including the threat of human trafficking.
This year according to information provided by Deanna Clark, Sedalia School District 200 social worker, the number of homeless students is over 500. That estimate is low compared to 1,000 at one time and to last year’s count of 800.
“Right now, district wide, we’re at 545,” Clark said. “However, I believe that we have under-identified this year for a number of reasons. Some of it is our tracking system has changed. We’ve had some form changes and our social workers are spread a little bit thinner this year than they had been in the past.
“I’m finding students that I meet with … that have been experiencing homelessness off and on all school year, and I wasn’t even aware,” she noted. “I think that has to do with their needs being just so high right now, that it’s taking away from us being able to identify as effectively as we have in the past.”
Clark writes the McKinny-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act grant that the district receives from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education each year.
“Every year when I write for that grant in April, I pull the numbers from the previous year,” she said. “I keep a spread sheet of what our numbers are every year. They have continuously, for the last eight years, gone up. That’s why I saying I’m very shocked that we are showing a lower number this year, because the socioeconomic status has definitely not increased. That to me says we are missing something, somewhere.”
Children displaced, exploited
Homelessness among children doesn’t always mean they are living on the street, although sometimes that is the case.
“It means they are experiencing some form of displacement,” Clark said. “That could mean that they are living in a shelter, it could mean they are living in a hotel or motel or staying in their car.”
Clark added that if a child is unaccompanied they are also counted as homeless.
“Because, if a child is unaccompanied by a legal guardian, nobody has the right to say whether or not they can stay there,” she noted.
If a student leaves home because of a conflict or because a parent is incarcerated they might stay with an aunt and uncle. An aunt and uncle would not have legal guardianship.
“At that point someone else could come in, a grandparent, a sibling … and say ‘we want them to come live with us,’” Clark said. “The child has no say. That makes them highly mobile and more at risk.”
Students such as these would be identified as “doubled-up.”
“Maybe their entire family is doubled up, because of a lack of housing, a lack of shelter resources” she added. “It could be that a student has left home for various reasons and they are staying with another friend.”
She added that 111 students at SCHS are unaccompanied.
“Many of those students do not know where they are going to stay that night,” Clark said. “They don’t have a plan in place, so they are ‘couch surfing.’”
Often they are afraid of “wearing out” their welcome so they move on in a few days to another friend’s home.
“It is not easy living on your own, and I believe for a child to leave a situation it must be hard,” she said.
Clark said the school district works closely with the Pettis County Children’s Division and the Pettis County Juvenile Office “to identify” the reason why the child isn’t living at home.
“We work to try and get them back in their home,” she added. “There’s a lot of mediation between family members and students.”
Displaced students are also at risk for human trafficking.
“You hear a lot in the media today about human trafficking,” Clark said. “These students, especially our unaccompanied youth, are at high risk for that, and we do hear stories locally. They don’t realize that they are being violated or exploited, but they are.”
Exploitation may even come in the form of using the student’s food stamps and then kicking them out of the home.
“We try to teach them how to manage those resources,” she added.
Sedalia poverty level high
The 2016 State of the State Poverty in Missouri report, released Feb. 4, said that 287,081 children in Missouri live in poverty. Pettis County’s poverty rank is 17.6 percent meaning that up to one in five people live in poverty locally. From statistics pulled from the report, Pettis is one county where 25 percent or more of children under 18 live in poverty.
“This shows you how the poverty is in Sedalia, compared to the outlaying areas,” Clark said. “In Sedalia itself, it’s higher. Because people tend to migrate to where the services are.”
The Homeless Count coordinated by the Pettis County Community Partnership, on Jan. 27 confirmed the count at, 20 literally homeless in Sedalia/Pettis County; 27 doubled-up/at imminent risk of homelessness; and 18 unconfirmed (not enough data was collected to be included in the count).
“These numbers include the adults and children we were able to speak with on the night of the count as well as all clients we were able to assist throughout the 24 hour period of the count,” Roxanna Parker, PCCP director of housing services, said by email this week.
Although those number may appear low while the student count is high having children all in one place to identify homelessness is effective.
Clark added that once a student is identified as homeless and is placed on the McKinny-Vento list they remain on the list for the duration of the school year. As students are added the list grows throughout the year.
“They are eligible for the remainder of the school year, regardless if whether or not their circumstances have changed,” she added. “We don’t re-identify throughout the course of the school year.”
Clark explained that McKinney-Vento is legislation authorized under the No Child Left Behind Act that “affords protection and advocacy for students who are experiencing homelessness.” The legislation helps the child to remain in school.
“It affords them the right to be able to stay in their school of origin,” Clark said. “If they are not able to stay in their school of origin it allows them to have access immediately to education. If the family is displaced and has to leave where they are and they do not have the records to go with them, schools are able to go ahead and enroll them without the records.”
The school is then able help the student rebuild their “cumulative file.”
“We help them pull together those pieces of their record that would be in various places,” she said. “All school districts are supposed to identify McKinney-Vento liaison.”
She added that Sedalia writes for a sub-grant each year. The federal government “pushes out” grants to all of the states and then the state releases grants for people to apply for; then depending on how many people apply for the grant, and the amount of need, those grants are released. The maximum amount of money received in a grant per year is $150,000.
Clark said that she believed only 11 schools in Missouri received the grant money this year including Sedalia 200 which has approximately 5,000 students.
“Depending on how you say you’re going to use that money (determines) whether or not you will be funded,” she added. “It is also determined by the number of students you have in your area who are experiencing homelessness.”
How to help?
Clark said one way to help the situation is “to wrap those families in services.”
” … To move them to a place where they are willing to ask or accept services when they are offered,” she added. “Sometimes you are talking about family addiction. Students live in it until they get old enough to say ‘I don’t want to live in this any more.’ So they leave. What we would like to see is family treatment … but there is only so much we can do as a school.”
Clark believes the school district is doing all they can to help homeless students.
“We have a phenomenal administration at Sedalia 200,” Clark said. “They are highly aware of the needs of these at-risk students. We work very closely with the social workers to tailor the program.”
She cited other local agencies that are important in aiding the school district with at-risk students; Sedalia-Pettis County United Way, Open Door Ministries and Pettis County Community Partnership.
“I think whether or not we had a sub-grant, without the community partnerships that we have, it would be impossible for the school social workers to do the jobs we do without the agencies that support us,” Clark said.
Faith Bemiss can be reached at 530-0289 or @flbemiss.