Few schools give full-time attention to the plight of homeless children

In a study of school districts across West Michigan, we found many of the homeless liaisons tasked with helping children have dual or triple roles in the district suggesting schools don't put a full emphasis on the growing problem.

One of Michigan's top education leaders says some school districts in Michigan are not doing enough to prevent kids from becoming homeless.

This comes as a 13 Watchdog investigation found some local school districts are asking their federally-mandated school homeless liaisons to dedicate as little as five percent of their working time to assist children who are at-risk for or experiencing homelessness.

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In a study of school districts across West Michigan, we found many of the homeless liaisons tasked with helping children have dual or triple roles in the district suggesting schools don't put a full emphasis on the growing problem. Some of the liaisons have other job titles ranging from being a benefits coordinator to a receptionist to a superintendent.

Pam Kies-Lowe, Michigan's Coordinator for Homeless Education, has compassion for schools because there are few resources for administrators to tap into to help the kids. She says prevention is the key for children who fall into homelessness.

"It's such a difficult thing when you have responsibilities in that school building all day," Kies-Lowe said. "It's a role that's mandated by the federal law. It's not a role that's compensated in terms of the budget for this program."

It's mandatory

For close to 30 years, the federal government's mandated schools eliminate all enrollment barriers and provide school access and support for academic success for students experiencing homelessness. Congress approved funding the program to provide direct educational services for eligible students. In 2002, the McKinney-Vento Act strengthened requirements requiring all districts appoint a local liaison to ensure the students have some help. In recent years, the federal government and state have agreed to provide strict training for local homeless liaisons to make sure there is accountability.

But we found few school districts or charter schools utilize somebody in a full-time fashion.

"Most of them have many other jobs and they wear a lot of hats," Kies-Lowe said. "They typically are selected because they are close to the students or have contact in the buildings with enrollment registration student services. They may not have a lot of time to focus on it but the system connects them to people who do have more dedicated time," Kies-Lowe said.

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Kies-Lowe says she works tirelessly to help the local liaisons and says regional coordinators are also there to help. Regional coordinators have to spend at least a third of their time helping homeless children. But, ultimately, everybody acknowledges local leaders just don't get out into the community to speak at events enough to increase awareness. There's deep concern local liaisons aren't recognizing potential homeless situations before the kids end up in a shelter.

The numbers do lie

Kies-Lowe also is concerned some school districts keep reporting that they have zero homeless students, when it's extremely likely there is a child in every district who is either doubled or tripled up with other families or potentially living in a shelter or a motel. She says homelessness is not necessarily an economic issue and it can be caused by domestic violence or family situations.

"I don't find (schools) don't want to do (the counting)," Kies-Lowe said. "It's a lack of awareness because they are so focused on all the things schools are required to do for kids that they have missed a piece to the puzzle. Any school district with a zero count can expect to hear from me this year. I will be there to get them back on track."

Nearly 10,000 children in our state are confirmed to either live on the streets, in shelters or in motels. More than 25,000 kids live with other families doubled and tripled up in small places. There are about 6,000 homeless children who live in Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon Counties according to state numbers.

The experts believe those numbers are lower than what's reality because many parents are too proud to report the problem or are concerned they will lose their children if they do report their slide into homelessness.

Awareness is increasing though. Michigan didn't have a full-time statewide homeless liaison to help homeless children as the recession began to hit the state in the early 2000's. That was a time when Michigan's Department of Education was recording homeless students with pen and paper. Now there's a sophisticated computer system tracking how many kids are in a homeless situation.

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That's led to increasing numbers. There are six times more homeless students recorded in 2015 then there were in 2007. Undoubtedly, more kids are homeless but more are being reported now than ever before.

Prevention

Family Promise in Grand Rapids helps families who are experiencing homelessness. The organization's director Cheryl Schuch said schools have to be aggressive and proactive to recognize the signs of problems.

"By the time they come to my shelter, it's game over," Schuch said. "Everybody pays the cost of that down the road because a kid didn't have a safe house period."

Schuch acknowledges it's tough for some schools to be the first time of defense because some parents don't want to ask for help, are too proud to talk about the issue or fear losing their children.

"If somebody needs to be found and if assistance needs to be given, [schools] are probably the most trusted place for these families to be vulnerable and identify it," Schuch said.

"They can't learn to read or write," Mel Trotter Ministries President/CEO Dennis Van Kampen said. "They're coming to school thinking about they get some food and where will they will sleep because where they were last night they didn't sleep and they didn't get food most of the time."

Travel time

Despite a lack of resources on the local school level, there are programs making a difference. Students who start out in a district and then fall into homelessness through the year are often transported from where they end up back to their original school district to keep some kind of stability in a terrible situation.

Districts often bear the expense of the transportation using some of the federal funding, some grant money and some of their own funding.

"So that's the whole purpose of the McKinney-Vento Act is really to stabilize their education and to mandate now that schools presume it's in the kids best interests to stay in the school of origin for the entire year," Kies-Lowe said.

An example of that is what's happening in Grand Haven Public Schools. The school district has 214 documented homeless kids.

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Wendy Kuhlman is a van driver in the district and can drive up to 250 miles in a day just to make sure kids who started the year in the district, finish the year there.

"I am a mentor to them," Kuhlman said. "This is our own little mini-family, and we take care of each other."

Largely due to health reasons, Kuhlman was homeless years ago and lived three months in her vehicle. She often shares her story with the children in her van so they understand they are not alone.

"I want to tell you there is absolute silence in the van because they had no idea the person driving them used to be where they are," Kuhlman said.

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