ALLEN COUNTY, Ind. (WANE) – Homelessness can be very difficult for anyone, but especially for children and teens trying to get an education. A new study from the Indiana Youth Institute shows the number of homeless students in Indiana has increased 81 percent during the last five years. While that drastic growth may be surprising, local school district leaders said they’re seeing a similar trend.
The word homeless can usually bring to mind images like temporary tents and shelters under bridges. However, district leaders said those aren’t places where the majority of their homeless students live.
“Homelessness really comes in a lot of different forms. They may be students who are living in a homeless shelter. They may be students are doubling up or tripling up in one home. They may be students who are couch surfers, so one night they’re staying with a friend here, the next night maybe they’re with an aunt, maybe the next night, they’re with grandma, then they’re with another friend. They can be very transient, so it might not be that they are sleeping on the street, but they might not have a stable place to live from day to day,” Fort Wayne Community Schools spokesperson Krista Stockman said. “We do have families that may find themselves sleeping in a car or in an unsheltered environment from time to time.”
“The students that we identify as homeless usually are students who don’t have a permanent home that they call their own,” Director for Student Services for East Allen County Schools Ed Mendoza said. “Only five percent of our [homeless] students are either staying in hotels or staying in a shelter.”
Stockman said the district expects an increase every year.
Here’s a look at the most recent data available for both FWCS and EACS when it comes to the number of homeless and/or highly-mobile students.
Fort Wayne Community Schools
Approximate Number of Students: 30,000
East Allen Community Schools
Approximate Number of Students: 9,300
“If you’re anybody, but especially if you’re a child and you don’t know where you’re going to be sleeping that night, you don’t know if you’re going to have food, you don’t have those basic services and necessities of life, it can be really hard to worry about getting your reading done that night or how to do your math,” Stockman said.
In addition to added anxiety, district leaders have noticed other problems caused by a lack of permanent shelter.
“Some of the things that we see with students who are in poverty or homeless is that they have a high attendance problem, getting to and from school becomes an issue. A secondary thing would be that students don’t participate in extracurricular activities. They have a hard time focusing on their academic work. Most of the time homework doesn’t get done. They’re living day to day, and so the things that are essential for school and for learning are for student growth are absent in their lives because they’re dealing with the issue of stability. Therefore, it presents an issue for them that other students don’t experience,” Mendoza said. “Many students are embarrassed of their situation. They come to school with the same clothes on. They come to school not having proper hygiene, and teachers are very sensitive to that. We try to help students to deal with those issues while they’re here.”
To make life more manageable, both FWCS and EACS have designated homeless liaisons. They work with school counselors and case managers as well as directly with families to provide additional services. There are also clothing banks full of items necessary for success at school.
“We can provide toiletries, school supplies, clothing when needed, backpacks, really anything that a child might need for school, we can help them out with that,” Stockman said.
Stockman also said FWCS takes extra steps to protect students privacy both in the classrooms and on buses.
“We adjust routes so that maybe they’re the last ones, first ones to get picked up and last ones to get dropped off,” Stockman said. “We want to make sure that we keep them coming to school every single day so they can eat and get additional services.”
FWCS is also opening a new Support Services Center next year to better serve students and families in need.
“That’s just one more resource. One of the reasons we wanted that is so we do have one more place for families if they are in need of whatever support, that they have a specific place that they can go that’s centrally located and on bus lines. So, if they do need support from us, that is one place that they can go and kind of reach a lot of people all at once,” Stockman said. “We want to make sure that at school, if we can provide those resources, we want to so that they can have some stability in their life and still get an education because education is what will eventually get them out of that situation and break that cycle.”
EACS also refers students to resources outside the district.
“We have a program called the Student Assistance Program through the Bowen Center. All students who are in that position where they need where they need assistance are recommended to the Bowen Center for additional services,” Mendoza said. “We make referrals to receive medical treatment and some mental health assessment or counseling for students who are in that position because we find that many students are in need of some counseling to get them through that difficult period in their life.”