For the City Times
Submitted by Heather Lisitza, school counselor, and the Wisconsin Rapids Public School Homeless Liaison.
Identifying homeless students is only the first step.
The number of homeless school-aged children in Wisconsin has more than doubled in a decade, from 8,069 to 18,592. Some live in cars, campgrounds, motels, or shelters, but most of these children double up with other families because they have lost their own housing. The children in these families are homeless under a federal education law called the McKinney-Vento Act. This act requires that school districts identify students who are experiencing homelessness. This though is not an easy task. They aren’t found holding cardboard signs on the street or camping under bridges. They are a much more hidden and invisible population. Yet they are growing up with their belongings in plastic bags, wondering how long it will be until they have worn out their welcome and have to move again
Homelessness is not a uniform experience. Some children are homeless with their parents who may have lost their housing after experiencing a job loss, an unexpected tragedy or illness, a natural disaster or trauma related to violence or substance abuse. These families may be living in temporary shelters, motels, campgrounds, cars, or are doubled up with another family that has housing. Some youth are unaccompanied and aren’t living with a parent or guardian and are left to fend for themselves.
No standardized system exists for how schools identify students experiencing homelessness, only the requirement that they must identify them. How a district does this depends heavily on funding it receives to support the work and the amount of training the school liaison and employees have received.
Wisconsin Rapids Public Schools identified over 250 children and youth that were in a homeless situation identified by the McKinney-Vento Act during the 2016-2017 school year, but the true number is believed to be much higher because many situations are not reported. Parents are afraid that the county might take their kids away if it was discovered that they were living at a campground, in a car, or with another family. This makes it hard for the schools to identify children and youth who could benefit from some of the services schools are required to provide students in homeless situations. Identifying students in these situations means support, not judgement.
Students experiencing homelessness report that school is a home to them – a place where they see the same faces, sit in the same seat, get fed a hot breakfast and lunch, and have a routine. They know the electricity will be on and water will be available to them. School to these children is their ONLY stability in their life.
While municipalities across the region, state and country continue to struggle with addressing the root causes of homelessness, schools are dealing with the consequences. As such, WRPS is an active partner in the south Wood County Homelessness Coalition and other community resources in an effort to provide these children and youth with a way up and out of these circumstances. With the appropriate supports and resources in place, we can help these students escape their current situation and do more than just survive. They can thrive, but only if we support local, state and federal efforts to provide adequate funding for the important work.