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Suburban school districts deal with growing problem of homeless students

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 22, 2008 - Raishelle Scott did her share of work in the trenches of child abuse and neglect agencies before landing her dream job in the Hazelwood school district more than a decade ago.

"I thought I was in heaven," she says, remembering the low-stress atmosphere she came to associate with being a school social worker in Hazelwood. Even so, her duties have grown more complex because she now has to address social problems that were once rare among students in suburbia. Homelessness, for example.

During the past school term, Hazelwood had more than 1,500 students who came to school from shelters, cheap motels, the homes of relatives or strangers or, in extreme cases, the streets. Although usually associated with families and children in poorer urban school districts, student homelessness is now showing up throughout suburbia. During the 2006-07 school term, for example, 1,307 students in the Ferguson Florissant District were classified as homeless, along with 167 in Parkway, 132 in Rockwood, 23 in Clayton and 21 in Ladue. (Most of the area's homeless students, 4,500, attended schools in St. Louis.)

Shantana Stewart, a spokeswoman for Ferguson Florissant, attributes the district's high numbers to more accurate reporting and the district's large size.

Whatever the reason, social workers say these numbers are the consequences of several social and economic problems, ranging from divorce to the mortgage crisis to general economic conditions. Homelessness among Missouri students hasn't risen sharply since the 1999-2000 school term when the number peaked at 17,500; but during the previous school term, 13,600 students were classified as homeless. About half to two-thirds of them are bundling up with relatives and friends, and most of the rest live in shelters, hotels and motels. The number may rise if the recession deepens.

Says Scott, "We have a lot of families living in hotels. Many of them have lost their homes through foreclosures, and a lot of them have lost their jobs."

Parkway would seem like an unlikely place to find homeless students. School social worker Alyssa Herrera says the real number could be higher than the official number. The district may not be aware of some cases, she says, because some families who may have lost their homes can help themselves or get help from others and never seek services from the district's homeless coordinator.

State law has helped children by requiring that they be allowed to attend schools in their home districts even if their families find shelter in another district. The two districts must work out transportation to make that happen. While students like remaining in their home disticts, they don't like the stigma attached to being homeless.

"A lot of times kids are ridiculed because it's embarrassing for them to have to catch a bus from a motel," says Scott of Hazelwood. "It's also embarrassing to some of them to have to arrive in school in a cab because some other kids will know that, chances are, the family has lost its home in the district and is doubling up with relatives somewhere else."

In fact, children don't like to consider themselves homeless even if they lack fixed addresses.

"They prefer to call it couch surfing," says Pat Holterman-Hommes, senior vice president of Youth In Need of St. Charles. "It's a term that means kids find a place for the night off the street until they have to move to another place. But they don't consider themselves homeless. We don't use the term homeless kids, either. We call them highly mobile."

Whatever the name, these youngsters can count on limited services. Youth In Need provides housing and counseling services to some of them, but it cannot accommodate all of those looking for a stable places to live.

"We've turned away 150 kids in the past six months," Holterman-Hommes says.

Still, districts and some communities are working hard to bring stability to these kids' lives. While there are always more problems than resources to tackle them, social workers are grateful that St. Louis County voters had the foresight to approve Proposition 1. That's the one-fourth cent sales tax approved in November to set up a community children's services fund to underwrite a range of services, including shelter, for children.

"Sometimes we all have hard times," says Cheryl Thomas, school social worker in the Rockwood District. "But children needing help also have people who care and are really concerned about them in Rockwood. That's not only true for homeless children but for anybody who goes through our referral system."

She says school districts deserve credit for reaching out and keeping children in their home schools even if they end up living outside the district.

"That means a lot to our students," Thomas says. "I believe their No. 1 fear is not being able to come back to their school."

Like Rockwood, many other school districts have school-community outreach programs to assist needy students. In Hazelwood, for example, a community response team steps in frequently to address family problems large and small, from helping those displaced by a house fire to providing hygiene items to homeless families living in hotels and motels or doubling up with friends and relatives.

"The idea," Scott says, "is eliminate barriers that prevent children from succeeding in school."

After all, adds Herrera of Parkway in a separate interview, schools provide these youngsters with important connections to familiar places, faces, friends and teachers.

"The school," she says, "is the only stable place they have."

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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