Idaho’s homeless student population on the rise

The final ring of a school bell can bring about a number of different emotions for students. Some may be excited while others may feel anxiety because school is the only safe and stable place for them to go. Unfortunately, these emotions are compounded for the homeless student population, which has steadily increased in Idaho since 2010.

In the 2017-2018 school year, 7,820 Idaho students from kindergarten to 12th grade didn’t have a fixed or adequate place to sleep at night. It’s an increase of more than 60% since 2010. That doesn’t mean those students were living on the street. Only about 5 percent of homeless students are considered unsheltered, according to the Idaho State Department of Education. Instead, a majority of homeless students, about 83 percent, are “couch surfing” or “doubled-up” with family or friends.

“It’s not a stable situation because they could be kicked out at any time with or without their stuff,” said Suzanne Peck the Title IX-A homeless education state coordinator.

Teens and children are considered homeless if they’re sharing housing with other people, according to the Department of Education. They also could be living in a motel, a car or a campground and fit the definition of homeless.

Idaho homeless student issue not isolated to cities

Homeless students aren’t just a metropolitan problem, but one facing the entire state. More than a dozen school districts in Idaho have 53 percent or more of their students who live in poverty, according to the Department of Education. The department is working to help those students through liaisons.

There are more than a 100 liaisons in the state who identify students who may be fighting homelessness. Some of the signs liaisons look for: chronic hunger, fatigue, unmet medical needs, aggression, anxiety, or erratic attendance. “We do a lot of training with staff so they’re aware of what to look for,” said Peck.

Once a teen or child has been identified, the liaison will sign up the child for nutrition programs and other services. The overall goal is to help provide stability for these students so they can be in school, learn, and succeed. “There’s a lot of things these liaisons will do behind the scenes,” said Peck. “We have times where we have kids that may move to grandma’s house. … The most stable situation for that kid is to stay in the school where that kid was going. What we’ll do is work out some transportation so the student can go back to their school of origin and stay stable.”

The liaison program works with families to help them find the resources and services they need to succeed. “For those that might have been first-time homeless, they don’t know how to apply for food stamps,” said Peck. “The trauma that’s happening in those families at that point in time, those liaisons are there for support and whatever the family’s needs might be.”

Many schools provide extra resources a family may need to help it achieve stability. Some schools have become community centers and will bring in food and school supplies as well as dental, medical, and counseling services, providing a one-stop shop for homeless students and families. Other schools have installed washers and dryers so families can do laundry. In Kuna, the district has added a community resource center at Ross Elementary School as well as other school buildings across the district.

What’s troublesome, Peck said, is identifying the number of infants who are homeless. There are only 10 districts in Idaho (Boise, West Ada, Nampa, Caldwell, Kuna, Payette, Coeur d’Alene, Lewiston, Blackfoot, and Twin Falls) that receive additional money and therefore are required to identify children from 3 to 5-years-old who may be siblings of older homeless students. Last year, the Department of Education was only able to identify about 70 pre-k students who are battling homelessness. However, Peck thinks that number is probably closer to about 6,000.

“Our young families throughout the state of Idaho are not as stable,” said Peck.

Peck adds the Department of Education is working with other agencies, like the Department of Health and Welfare, and partnering with early-childhood programs to help better identify younger homeless students.

In addition to the Department of Education liaison program, there are a number of organizations working to end homelessness in Idaho. You can click here to learn more about services available.

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