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Hidden in plain sight

For many students, life’s most basic necessities are taken care of by their parent or guardian. For others, their parents are either absent or unable to care for them, leaving them to fend for themselves when it comes to food, clothing and even a warm bed to sleep in.




Hidden in plain sight

“One of the things that I’m most shocked by is the amount of homeless kids that we have. I think people envision homeless people as living under bridges and in tents, but that’s not necessarily the case at the high school level…” Amy Greif, social worker for Farmington High School

Amy Greif, a social worker in her second year at Farmington High School, said she was initially shocked by the amount of homeless students in the district, though they may not appear homeless to most.

The definition of a homeless student comes from the McKinney-Vento Act, which was passed alongside the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and guarantees homeless students an equal education to their more privileged classmates.

According to the legislation, a homeless student is any student who is sharing the housing of others (doubling up) due to a loss of housing or financial strain, living in motels, hotels or camping grounds, living in emergency/transitional shelters, abandoned in hospitals, awaiting foster placement, living in a place not designed as a regular sleeping accommodation or sleeping in public places or cars.

In addition, students who are not in the physical custody of their legal guardian can also be considered homeless.

“One of the things that I’m most shocked by is the amount of homeless kids that we have,” Greif said. “I think people envision homeless people as living under bridges and in tents, but that’s not necessarily the case at the high school level.

“It’s the kids who either get kicked out of their home, their parents move in with a girlfriend or boyfriend and the kids don’t want to go or the parents lose their job and can’t afford them. That’s typically what we see the most of.”

While elementary students are more likely to report their situation to teachers or counselors, Greif said middle and high school students are prone to feel ashamed or embarrassed about their lack of a consistent home and often try to hide their circumstances.

“Elementary school kids feel free to come in and tell their teacher what’s going on,” she said. “But once you get into middle school and high school, kids are kind of embarrassed by it and they don’t want people to know.

“A lot of times they moved to a different school district and they’re so afraid that they’re going to have to go to that new district that they lie and say they’re still living in the place they were.”

Greif added that the McKinney-Vento Act provides for such circumstances, allowing students who become homeless and move out of the district to continue attending the same school, so long as it is deemed to be the best thing for the student.

Students can be identified as homeless by filling out a questionnaire when enrolling in classes at the district or by teacher referral. Once referred to district social workers, Greif said there are a number of ways that the students can receive aid.

Greif said she tries to determine if a student is still being covered by their parents’ insurance, and if not, will attempt to enroll the student in Medicaid. Students will also be encouraged to apply for food stamps when eligible and can also benefit from the “Knight Time Snack Program,” which send backpacks of non-perishable food home with students on Friday nights.

Despite having similar circumstances, Greif said the specific issues facing students of different ages require adjusting the approach.

“The high school level is so much different than elementary or middle school because, typically, when they’re young they are usually doubled-up with another family so they’re not really on their own,” she said. “At the high school level, they really can be on their own.

“Sometimes their friends’ parents are involved, helping them stay for a few days, and some of them just couch surf, jumping from place to place. Those are the kids that I really worry about the most because they rely on other families letting them stay for a few days. I always try to help them with food so they’re not feeling like they have to ask for food from families.”

In keeping with the goal of the McKinney-Vento Act, Greif said the district works to make sure students in homeless situations are able to pursue the same interests as other students. Homeless students can receive help with obtaining physical examinations for athletics, club fees and other costs associated with extracurricular activities.

“If they’re seniors getting ready to go to college, we do offer some help with paying for their ACT and we allow them to use our school address for college application letters. Sometimes, colleges have fees for applications and we can write letters asking them to waive the fees. So there are a lot of in-house things that we do.”

Greif said the main focus of the district is to assist students in meeting standard necessities for being a student, like ensuring transportation to school, arranging for showers at school or allowing the use of school facilities for laundry.

“As far as resources, unfortunately, there’s not a ton of outside agencies that really help,” Greif said. “The problem is, once they’re 17 or 18, they fall into that crazy age where they’re kind of an adult but not yet, technically.”

While the district can work to do what it can for many identified homeless students in terms of their educational success, Greif said there are not many resources for students in terms of housing, especially for those who are almost adults.

“I would love to have some type of housing,” she said. “Maybe an apartment complex that would provide one or two apartments for our kids that really have no place to go. So far, I’ve not been able to find a complex that’s willing or able to rent to a 17 or 18 year old. And even at that point, they would struggle financially.

“I would love to find some agency that would be willing to help out, but I think everyone I’ve spoken to is worried about the liability of having a minor living somewhere under their responsibility.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 30,650 students considered homeless in Missouri’s public school system, or 3.3 percent of the total number of students. There were a total of 1,260,721 homeless students in the United States at the time, with the highest amount being in California (235,983), New York (118,435) and Texas (113,063). Missouri ranked ninth in the nation in terms of homeless student population in public schools.

While the term 'homeless' may bring a certain image to mind, most homeless students are essentially indistinguishable from their classmates unless they report their situation.

While the term ‘homeless’ may bring a certain image to mind, most homeless students are essentially indistinguishable from their classmates unless they report their situation.

Jacob Scott is a reporter with the Daily Journal. He can be reached at 573-518-3616 or at jscott@dailyjournalonline.com.

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