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No place to call home: Finding resources can be a challenge for homeless students

Volunteers from Christian Cupboard Emergency Food Shelf came to South Washington County School District's No Kid Hungry event on June 11 prepared with food packs. Katie Nelson / RiverTown Multimedia

Across the state, school districts like Farmington's and Rosemount's are increasing their efforts to find and support homeless students.

A Rivertown Multimedia collaboration has found that across the southeast Twin Cities metro and western Wisconsin, districts have varying approaches to helping their unhoused youth with one commonality: a steady increase in the number of homeless students recorded at each school. With 10 homeless students at Rosemount High School and 10 at Farmington Area High School, the schools have among the lowest numbers of homeless students compared to Washington County schools and western Wisconsin.

Like school districts across the nation, Farmington and Rosemount define these students as homeless, according to the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which says that for a student to be considered homeless, he or she does not have one stable place to stay every night and with safe and sufficient space. This definition includes students who are with their family doubled up with another family as guests, or who are couch surfing on their own.

The 1987 act requires every school district in the country to designate a homeless student coordinator to determine, track and help homeless students.

Nandi Rieck, federal and state program specialist for Rosemount, says that school nurses and secretaries often act as her eyes and ears for identifying homeless students and referring them to her department's resources.

School counselors and other staff have also gone through training in the last four years, which may have contributed the number of documented students throughout the whole district growing from 154 in the 2013-14 school year to numbers in the 200s from 2014-15, 2015-16, 2016-17 and then 173 in the 2017-2018 school year, she said.

Lisa Edwards, director of continuous improvement for Farmington Area Schools, said Farmington High School has seen a similar rise over the last four years for the same reasons.

"We've gotten better at identifying and training or staff to recognize the signs," she said.

In addition to school resources, about 400 families have received assistance from the Dakota County housing crisis line.

At school

For most unaccompanied minors, just staying enrolled in school is a daily challenge.

The last Wilder survey reported that over half of students experiencing homelessness received poor or failing grades. Nearly half also struggled with truancy or attendance, most of which they attributed to challenges getting to the school.

However, Wilder reported attendance has been increasing recently.

"Some of our unaccompanied youth unfortunately end up not coming, but I think that's been very, very few," Crystal Gentry, the South Washington County Schools homeless student coordinator, said. "I think overall we've been able to keep our students in our schools, which is, of course, the goal and what we want in the best interest of our students, to have some of that consistency."

Of course, when school isn't in session it gets more complex for students experiencing homelessness.

Some schools try to ensure there's programming or summer school for those months off.

Others can also give food packs and supplies to kids when they are not at school to receive them.

Sometimes though, this is where those kids fall through the cracks.

"If they are able to be in a place long enough — because some of our unaccompanied youth, because some are couchsurfing and some are at least able to stay in a place for a couple months or a little bit more long term — if they are able to get the food there, then we'll get it there," Gentry said.

They can give extra food, or supplies, but that only lasts so long. If they're not in school, there's not always something the school district can do to help them.

Layers of vulnerability

The Wilder study reported that before becoming homeless one-third of youth up to 24 years old remained in an abusive situation because they felt they had nowhere else to go.

Around 90 percent of young people facing homelessness have already experienced some kind of trauma, such as sexual abuse, living with a substance abuser, having an incarcerated parent or dealing with serious or chronic mental health issues.

Staffers with The Link, a youth outreach group in Dakota County, hear about these experiences firsthand. They work mostly with youth 18 to 24, seeing many at a drop in Center in Apple Valley.

The Link's Stephanie Plaster said when homeless youth arrive at the drop in center, staff ask if they have ever been tricked into doing things they didn't want to, exchanged sex for resources and if they have any plans to make them happy other than just surviving. Between 30 and 40 of the 160 they talked to last year had experienced one or all of these.

She estimates the number is actually much higher, because staffers are asking these very personal questions the first time they meet. The questions are to determine what kind of services they're eligible for, and though the answers will not be attached to anyone's name, they can still be hesitant to answer honestly.

"We try to provide them with whatever they're in need of ... to make their situation a little safer than it is," Plaster said.

The Link staff provide whatever a person needs to stay safe and healthy — such as food, laundry facilities, clean clothes, gift cards for gas, hygiene products — no matter what kind of housing situation they have worked out.

"Shelters can be scary for people," Plaster said. "Some people want to engage in survival sex rather than go to a shelter."

In these cases, she said, they will provide condoms, pregnancy tests and safe sex kits.

Experiencing homelessness as a young person can add all of these extra layers of vulnerability. Wilder reported that as much as 20 percent have admitted to being attacked or beaten.

It can be difficult for others to pick out these students who need help, and for many of them that's on purpose.

"If they don't want you to know, you're not going to know. ... Image is so important to teenagers," Plaster said. "They're going to figure out a way to be presentable and look good and fly under the radar."

Shelter vs. affordable housing

Homeless teens can find counseling services and temporary shelter at The Harbor, but there is a limited number of beds there.

For young people aged 12 to 17, there are 18 beds. Most of those beds tend to be taken up by teens on court-ordered placements, leaving little room for unaccompanied youth who may be without a place to stay.

The Harbor is the only shelter in the area for unaccompanied youth.

Dakota Woodlands Shelter in Eagan serves families, up to 21 at a time, though there is often a lengthy waiting list.

Though shelters are necessary for emergency placement, it isn't the only solution to the problem.

One of Wilder's key findings — that most homeless students coordinators and community services providers tend to agree with — is that the largest barrier for homeless youth is that there's a shortage not only of shelters, but also affordable housing.

Dakota County's Heading Home organization, made of county staff, representatives from area non-profits and other community organizations, is working to evaluate and improve the systems currently in place for services, shelter and affordable housing in the area.

Since its initial launch in 2012, the group has grown and started to hold monthly meetings, made new partnerships, added work groups and connected with local school districts to add a focus on homeless students.

By including various organizations in Heading Home, grants can often be secured that don't have to be used with the same strict guidelines based on the definition of homelessness that the county or the school districts have to adhere to.

Bowers said they have added a strong community engagement aspect to Heading Home, made of volunteers who have helped the group with outreach and other assistance.

Brian Kiley, director and founder of the nonprofit homelessness ministry CityGate, noted that homelessness can swiftly turn into an ugly cycle if housing can't be secured.

Over 75 percent of youth surveyed by Wilder in 2015 said they had experienced an earlier episode of homelessness. A quarter of homeless adults had been homeless as a minor.

"Today's homeless youth are tomorrow's homeless," Kiley said.

As teenagers graduate high school or age out of foster care, the services they depended on start evaporating, leaving them with few options he said.

Since 2014, the Minnesota Interagency Council on Homelessness reported a 22 percent increase in homeless youth, though homeless families decreased by 20 percent.

Breaking the cycle

The services offered to teenagers experiencing homelessness, though necessary, often serve more or less as a band-aid to the problem, Kiley said. It takes systemic change to break the cycle. Part of that change is what's known as the housing first approach: getting people a stable place to stay before anything else.

Once they have a place to live — and to unpack their bag — they are more likely to ask for help, Kiley said.

Although the services offered through organizations, the county or the school district keep homeless youth as safe as they can, most providers know that the youth they're working with are still homeless when they leave.

The Link is working with landlords to increase the number of placements they can make locally. Of 19 referrals they did in 2017, 17 of them were placed in homes outside Dakota County.

They're also working on building relationships with landlords, hoping they will take a chance on tenants they otherwise wouldn't.

And when teenagers start out homeless so young, their record follows them.

Plaster said homeless youth often engage in a lot of "survival crime," such as petty theft, trespassing, loitering, "things that if those young people had a home wouldn't be doing," she said. "And now they have a criminal record and they have a harder time finding housing."

The housing first approach, Kiley said, can be the one to get teens out of what could become a lifetime cycle of homelessness, before teenagers run into extra barriers.

There are still barriers students have to deal with between themselves and services they need, but the work is being done to chip away at them.

School districts are working to identify and assist homeless students, as well as feed them with more and more initiatives fighting hunger. There will only be more to come as more students are identified and offered help.

The Dakota County housing crisis line is 651-554-5751.

Michelle Wirth and Jackie Renzetti contributed to this report