By April 2013, the latest state data showed the number of homeless students in St. Louis Public Schools had doubled over the past three school years.
At the time, Deidre Thomas-Murray, the coordinator of students in transition, described what these numbers look like in practice.
“For instance today, the social worker for this program said to me, ‘mom requested that hearing testing be done for her son, who has a hearing challenge,’” Thomas-Murray said. “She also requested academic testing. But, then when we attempt to locate mom to sign for this type of service, there’s no follow through. Because the families are highly mobile, it makes it almost impossible to provide the services that are needed.”
Skip ahead about 18 months and there are data now for the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years.
“It’s not getting any better,” Thomas-Murray said.
Five years ago roughly 1,700 students attending SLPS were considered homeless. Last school year, that number ballooned to more than 5,500 out of a total enrollment of 24,869 students. Under federal law, students who lose their home have the right to continue attending their original school, even if their family finds temporary shelter outside a district’s boundaries. And the district spends close to $2 million a year on special transportation for those students.
Data show the overall number of homeless students in Missouri – defined by federal law as having no stable place to call home -- have only gone up since then. The majority of students are considered doubled up, essentially staying on couches or constantly moving between the homes of friends and relatives. And study after study indicate this places them at a greater risk of falling behind their peers in a string of academic categories and quitting school all together.
“Almost every family that comes through here has either lost their job or lost their home,” Thomas-Murray said. “It’s just poverty.”
The data also show the district is doing a better job identifying homeless students and getting them resources like clothes and food, she said. The district even has a handbook on college readiness tailored to students considered homeless.
But with more than 2,400 elementary school students considered homeless, said Thomas-Murray, the data also reflect a need that keeps getting bigger.
“Those are the numbers that are documented,” she said. “Just imagine the cases that aren’t documented.”
Missouri had 29,680 homeless students last school year, a nearly 80 percent increase compared to the 2009-10 school year.
In terms of total numbers, SLPS had the most homeless students in the state, with about one in five of its 24,869 students lacking a stable place to call home at some point during the 2013-14 school year. The Ferguson-Florissant School District had the second highest number of homeless students, accounting for 1,585 out of a total enrollment of 11,599 students.
The problem, however, isn’t confined to urban districts.
The Sedalia School District, for example, counted almost 900 homeless students out of a total enrollment of 4,811 last school year. That gives it roughly the same proportion as SLPS. And despite what appears to be an economic rebound after the recession, the national numbers keep going up, too.
National numbers are up, too
The latest U.S. Department of Education data, which are from the 2012-2013 school year, count more than 1.2 million students as homeless. That’s almost 300,000 more than in the 2009-10 school year. Of those students, more than 41,500 didn’t have shelter of any kind.
“It’s really contributing to putting them on a track toward homelessness as adults,” said Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.
“We are hearing some of our school district liaisons and shelter providers saying, ‘A mom came in with her child, I served her when she was a child,’ ” Duffield said.
Like many educators and advocates for homeless students, Duffield said growing awareness is partially behind the growing numbers. But she said the rising number also points to a cycle of poverty that rapidly accelerated during the recession and shows no signs of slowing down.
“So, we’re very concerned about some of the cycles are seeing with children who’ve never experienced any stability in their life at all,” Duffield said.
From test scores to grade retention, decades of studies show the more mobile a student is, the worse he or she does in the classroom. For example, a 2009 study of New York City students found transferring schools has a consistently negative effect on eighth-grade reading scores, and the effect is cumulative. And a report from America’s Alliance and the Center for Promise at Tufts University in May found that a kid who experienced homelessness is 87 percent more likely to drop out of school.
“From infancy through high school we see the effects of homelessness in pretty much every domain,” Duffield said.
‘They depend on each other to get food or clothing’
If you want to get a sense for the growing number of homeless kids in St. Louis, stop by Epworth Children and Family Services' brand new center for homeless youth. The $1.7 million drop-in center sits in the footprint of the new Normandy Schools Collaborative.
The facility opened this past summer and kids usually start showing up in the early afternoon. The center isn’t open on the weekends.
Teenagers play ping pong, check email and wash their clothes. It’s a chance to get their minds off of things, grab a meal and perhaps talk with a counselor. As the number of homeless teens went up, Epworth outgrew its previous drop-in center in University City.
The old center served around 15 to 20 young people a day, now about 50 kids now come through the door every day at the expanded facility.
Taylor Johnson, who works at the center, was homeless as a kid. A lot of the time she’s the first person homeless teenagers see when they walk through the door.
“They kind of form packs,” Johnson said. “Not so much gangs but just groups. ‘You’re my buddy, you’re my friend, we’re all in this together.’ They stay in vacant buildings, they call them ‘vacos.’ They depend on each other to get food or clothing, things like that.”
This is called cliquing-up. While there are no hard numbers, Johnson and other workers say it’s a story that’s becoming more and more common.
“Once they’re all together they feel like, ‘OK, we can do this,’” Johnson said. “And if they feel like, OK, I’ve got my buddies, they need me today, they’re not necessarily going to leave them to go to school, they’re thinking about, how are we going to eat tonight?”
She said kids who live in groups often tell her about resorting to petty theft to get basic necessities. Deodorant and socks are always in demand.
It’s a story Tray Hubbard knows well. He became homeless in high school and sometimes found himself sleeping in parks.
On a recent afternoon, the 21-year-old stopped by the center to take a shower and do laundry.
“It’s called family,” Hubbard said. “There’s going to be a leader who’s going to watch you and take care of you.”
The groups started to feel too shifty, the people seemed too dangerous. Hubbard said the leaders who seem like they to take care of you at first will soon want something in return.
“He’s going to expect you to be a dog,” Hubbard said. “Go out, get your meat and take it back to him. And every time you do that, you might get caught, you might get hurt, you might get locked up, he doesn’t care.”
Hubbard figures the best way to get by is on his own, even though that can make him more vulnerable. He found an abandoned house that he can stay in while taking classes to become a carpenter. Hubbard only has a month or so of class work left to complete.
Until then, he plans to keep a low profile and hope for the best.