School district staffer on homeless students: “It's traumatizing to our kids."

School can be challenging for any child – academically or socially – but homelessness poses a potentially overwhelming obstacle.

Yet close to 3,000 students in public school were classified as homeless during the 2016-17 school year, according to the most recent data provided by the Delaware Department of Education.

The count was 3,627 in 2014-15 and it declined to 3,314 in 2015-16, and then again to 2,990 in 2016-17, according to the DOE.

John Hulse, DOE state coordinator for homeless education, said people often think about living in a car, abandoned building or in a park when they hear someone is homeless. But that’s not necessarily how homeless students live.

“[Homelessness involves] individuals who lack a fixed regular and adequate night-time residence,” Hulse said. “Because of economic or other hardships, they might be sharing the housing of other people. It could be with other relatives or just friends. They could be living in motels, hotels or trailer parks, due to a lack of alternative adequate accommodations.”

Capital School District

Tonya Guinn, supervisor of student services for Capital School District, said it’s overwhelming going to school when students have no clue where they’re going to live from day to day.

“It’s traumatizing to our kids. Just imagine having that degree of uncertainty hanging over your head,” said Guinn, whose district has 483 homeless students. “Then they’re told to come to school. You have lessons to learn and homework to do. It’s pretty difficult to do homework when you’re doubled up with two or three different families; or you’re a family of six or seven and you’re in one motel room.”

The DOE recently awarded more than $184,000 in federal funding to nine districts to assist such children. Each winning application had to demonstrate a well-developed project to helps enrollment, attendance and success in school.

The proposals had to show they provided temporary, special and supplementary services to meet the needs of homeless students. The funding is good for up to three years, with a report each year to highlight their accomplishments and show how they used the money.

Districts usually combine the grants with a portion of their Title 1 funding –  federal dollars allocated to schools serving large percentages of low-income children, Hulse said.

Guinn said Capital School District has typically paired grants with some Title 1 money, usually about equal to the funding they’re awarded. This time around the project comes out to roughly $50,000.

Capital’s plan includes paying for school supplies, toiletries and clothing such as shoes as needed, Guinn said.

The money covers half the salary of a paraprofessional paid $26,000, with the rest from Title 1 funding.

Guinn said the paraprofessional makes contact with homeless families after the district identifies them, to determine their needs. When families enter homelessness, it’s common for them to be overwhelmed, she said, so they may need to learn about services available, such as food stamps.

Capital has two homeless liaisons whose duties overlap with the paraprofessional, but they already have a full plate, since they’re also tasked with handling truancy, which is basically a full-time job in itself, she said.

Housing vouchers

Capital, Christina and Seaford districts have a partnership with Delaware State Housing Authority. They screen families that might be eligible to receive a housing voucher that’s good for a year.

The housing authority works with landlords who are willing to house a homeless family.

Voucher candidates must meet some requirements, including being in the district for six months, Guinn said.

Housing authority spokeswoman Jessica Eisenbrey said a prior eviction won’t necessarily disqualify a family from being considered, since the organization will evaluate each family’s situation.

Guinn said they’re looking for candidates who are gainfully employed or who’ve maintained a good work history, with a track record of paying their rent or mortgage.

Once candidates are approved, they are paired with a case manager. Finding a home where a voucher can be used falls on the family. The manager helps to make sure families are moving into a place that’s habitable and large enough. Some families have found housing in just three months, while others have had to wait for over a year, Guinn said.

Homeless or not, it’s hard to find an affordable place to live when you’re a single parent making minimum wage and you have a couple children, Guinn said.

Other families, Guinn said, get referred to the James Williams State Services Center, which offers motel vouchers to eligible families. Motel vouchers are good for about 27 days at participating businesses.

Keeping kids in their district

While school districts would love to guarantee every family a home, it doesn’t always happen.

Guinn said each district receiving the federal funding is only responsible for ensuring that homeless students remain stabilized in their home school district.

Homeless students sometimes move from one county to another. The state covers the bulk of the cost of transportation if they need to travel to and from school in their home district.

Guinn said it they get to continue in school and see their friends as they’re dealing with their situation.

Smyrna School District

Smyrna School District superintendent Patrik Williams said their grant is divided, with 33 percent going toward a paraprofessional’s salary. The rest is for other areas, such as holiday meals, college applications and SAT fees, or school and personal supplies. Smyrna has 213 homeless students.

Williams said their paraprofessional works alongside the homeless liaison and networks with landlords, churches, shelters and charitable organizations to find housing.

Without the grant, the district would continue to support families, the superintendent said. But that’d likely be at the cost of reducing the number of families it helps. Although the district has an annual budget of $72.1 million, Smyrna is still recovering from 2017 state budget cuts, Williams said.

“Two years ago, the legislature cut $26 million out of the school finance budget. As a result, that impacted Smyrna School District, with just over $1 million,” the superintendent said. “When that happened, we had to curtail hiring and curtail some of the programs. At the time, none of our folks in house lost positions. We were very fortunate that way.”

But the district did things like not replacing retirees or staffers who left. They “made a lot of deep cuts to some of the programs,” Williams said.

In Seaford and Milford

At the moment, Seaford School District has an estimated 150 homeless students, said Chester Cox, director of student services.

Seaford has dedicated a portion of the funding to pay for a homeless liaison.

The money is used for things such as hotel vouchers, for toiletries and scholarships for high school students, Cox said.

Craig Warrington, visiting teacher and homeless liaison for Milford School District, said his district is using the federal dollars to pay half the salary for a staffer to run their food pantry at Morris Elementary Childhood Center, which is available to homeless students,  to pay for clothing vouchers and toiletries and school supplies.

Milford has 133 homeless students. Of the nine districts awarded federal money, it received the second smallest slice, $10,000. Warrington said it’s not a lot, but every bit helps.

“It’s minimal, but the good thing we have in Milford is a lot of groups and churches that come to us and make donations,” he said. “We’ve had a huge coat drive for one school from one church. So the combination of the grant and the donations from the town really helps to kind of make it work.”

Christina School District

Christina School District has 400 homeless families.

Angie McAdoo, a homeless education liaison for Christina, said the district will use the federal dollars to pay the nonprofit Educating All Angles to organize workshops for families, including ways to budget money and repair their credit score, and support for students and parents that’ve been exposed to domestic violence.

“A lot of our families go through evictions and don’t properly know how to manage money. We’re trying to give them encouragement along the way to help them start thinking about that financial aspect,” McAdoo said. “Many times, once you get evicted and you have that on your report, it’s hard to get some sort of housing.”

She said it’s important to educate some families on how to think differently about spending habits.

For instance, she recently met with a parent who’s been staying in a motel.

The parent just received her income tax money and decided to get her nails done and buy “a whole lot of stuff,” McAdoo said.

“Are you thinking about saving? Are you thinking about trying to do without those material items that we splurge on? Thinking differently [is important], because if you get your income tax money, how are you using that to try to get yourself into a better position? Are you trying to pay off your electric bills, because if you’re trying to get another house and you have an old bill you haven’t paid, it’s hard.”

The district works with the nonprofit Bethel Caring Hands to tutor students after school and teach them about time management.

Having a space where students can receive tutoring is key, McAdoo said. Some students may be with multiple family members in a motel in one room, and it could be too difficult to concentrate on doing homework.

Recognizing that homelessness is stressful, McAdoo said she and her colleagues try to put their best foot forward with effective programming and support to help lighten the load of those students.

“What you don’t want is for the family to lose hope,” she said. “You want to give them hope and say, ‘Where you’re at today doesn’t mean you have to stay here.’”