GRAND RAPIDS (WZZM) - They often don't look any different from other students, so to an outsider, you likely wouldn't guess the number of homeless students in Michigan's schools has jumped more than 300 percent in the last four years, according to the Michigan Department of Education.
The State Coordinator for Homeless Education Programs expects the numbers statewide to increase another 30 percent when 2011-2012 data comes out, and the numbers locally are likely to be part of the reason.
The recent issue started last fall with a change to state legislation. Many families lost cash assistance from the state.
DHS had been giving families up to 60 months of assistance, but the legislature enacted a stricter 48-month rule in October. In addition, they created a lifetime limit for benefits, and started kicking families out of the system that had already been in for 60 months. That immediately affected 46,000 children, a 30 percent increase between September 2011 and February 2012.
The Grand Rapids Coalition to End Homelessness Coordinator Janay Brower says that number is only bound to go up as more and more families exhaust their lifetime limits.
Local school districts are already feeling the effect.
In the classroom and hallways of West Michigan, they're students. But when a group of 2,000 Kent County students leave school for the day, they take on the title homeless students.
"I've lived in more than 10 different living situations," said Jordan Bordeaux of Grand Rapids.
"Sometimes we would even have to stay in our car," said DeShawn, who wanted to be identified by first name only.
Deshawn's family is one of many recently evicted. Now, coming home isn't home, it's a temporary shelter.
"You're here one week, it's the next week," said Sarah Gorsuch.
A two-hour bus ride arrives at Family Promise, a homeless assistance center, and 11-year-olds Faith McKay and Sarah Gorsuch jump into an employee's SUV for another 20 minute ride to a church to spend the night.
"You're moving to a new place every week and it's just kind of hard to pick up all your stuff," said Gorsuch.
In Walker a Kenowa Public Hills School bus pulls into a motel that has been first grader Austin's home for the last month.
"It's hard. It's cramped, not enough room, but we'll do it until we find a place to live," said his mom, JoAnna McMurray.
The homeless children are usually the first ones picked up and the last ones to be dropped off by the school buses. That way, their classmates don't see where they're staying. It's a way to help preserve their dignity.
These are the faces of West Michigan's homeless students.
The majority don't live under a bridge like you might assume, but school districts identify them as homeless when they don't have a stable living environment.
Their numbers statewide have jumped more than 300 percent in the last four years.
Pam Kies-Lowe, Homeless Education Consultant for the Michigan Department of Education, says that's partially due to job loss and foreclosures, but in 2008, schools also received more resources to better identify homeless students.
The MDE didn't have a full-time homeless coordinator until she was hired to bring more awareness to the McKinney-Vento Law.
School districts were then required to start hiring homeless liasions.
By the 2010-2011 school year, Michigan counted 31,131 homeless students. Just over 2,000 of those students live in Kent County, and 1,2000 are enrolled in Grand Rapids Public Schools, DeShawn's district.
"I have friends that say,' oh yea,' I remember that shelter, I was in there a couple of weeks ago," said DeShawn.
The numbers grow even higher when you add in the children who aren't in a school system.
"In 2010, we served 11,000 children," said Brower.
"We know there are a lot of families who don't want to report that they're homeless. They're afraid they're not going to be able to continue going to the same school because they've lost their place of residence," said Cheryl Schuch, Family Promise Executive Director.
Schuch says the parents never thought they'd be in this situation.
"It's much more hidden in those suburban districts," she said.
In suburban Forest Hills, school buses carry 72 to class everyday.
"I don't think most people are aware that it's going on. People don't think of it here," said Matt Langlois.
The district sure didn't, until Langlois arrived three years ago as the homeless liaison and started training staff to identify the students. It turns out picking out suburban kids isn't so easy.
"I find that there is no visible signs that depict they are from a homeless family. There's nothing that looks different about them," said Bonnie Wood, who works with Langlois.
"They don't have an address, that's one of our cues," said Langlois.
The cues led to one new identification after another as job losses and home evictions spread to middle-class families.
"They're living with a family, doubled up," he said.
Schuch says suburban families have more options than lower-income families and usually don't end up in shelters or motels right away.
"They have resources to double up and don't usually have to move right away," she said.
Langlois counted three students in the 2009-2010 school year, 48 in 2010-2011, and so far this year, 72.
That's why he started posting homeless school information signs inside Forest Hills Foods to raise community awareness.
Shoppers quickly took notice.
"I was shocked, three and now 70 homeless children in the district," said Carolyn Hollander.
The signs are also an outreach to struggling suburban families.
"They haven't connected to the system and don't know what resources are available. They don't even know Family Promise exists," said Schuch.
"They're worried they might not be able to stay in the same school."
But these students can stay in their home school for the rest of the school year. The districts spend thousands on transportation to give these children stability, because school is the one stable thing in their lives.
No matter where a student moves, the bus, public transit, or even taxi, must follow.
"We have one student that travels 19 miles every morning one way to get to school," said Langlois.
"We don't have the option to say no, so we have to make it happen," said NaTasha Anderson, Homeless Program Coordinator for Grand Rapids Public Schools.
"Just the fuel is about $1.25 a mile, and you can imagine with a round trip, how much that adds up, and then the cost of the driver," said Langlois.
Districts give out gas cards and bus tickets to try to cut costs, but still.
"For 72 students this year, we've had about $60,000 in just transportation costs alone," said Langlois.
It's not just the state they're grappling with; schools don't get much help from the federal government either. This year, Kent County ISD received just over $124,000 to divide between its 20 schools. That doesn't come close to helping districts cover the costs.
"We have to pick up the slack," said Anderson.
But the real is cost paid by the students.
"Twenty-five percent of homeless students graduate from high school, studies show. That's unacceptable," said Brower.
"The hardest part is if it's ever going to stop," said Deshawn.
In despite of the increasing problem, Anderson says the community continues to step up and help with food and clothes.
She says GRPS can always use more though, especially with summer coming; the students will no longer receive free or reduced breakfast and lunch.
By Stacia Kalinoski