Homelessness… it’s our issue, too

If you had to guess, how many students would you think enrolled in the Fargo Public Schools are identified as homeless? Our total enrollment is over 10,600. Would you pick 10 students…50… 100?

The exact number of homeless students in Fargo Public Schools fluctuates on a daily basis.  The District is identifying more students each year due to systemic identification, word-of-mouth, and raising awareness of the issue.

Homelessness for students has many faces: economic hardship, family conflict, or the death or incapacitation of a parent. These can result in forced or voluntary homelessness of children, and result in their temporary residence with relatives or friends, in organized shelters, in inadequate housing. Or result in no residence at all.

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, which provides federal funding to states for its agencies that include shelters and schools, defines child and youth homelessness as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”1 Unfortunately, federal funding for homeless services is down from levels in previous years. The District’s McKinney-Vento funding was cut in half for 2011-12, to $17,000. The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, which provided nearly $176,000 through North Dakota DPI for homeless assistance in the state’s school districts, has also run out.

Anderson

Jan Anderson, who also handles the District’s Title I portfolio, became the homeless services liaison for the Fargo Public Schools in 2009. She works directly with students to get them the services and resources they need in order to continue their daily school attendance – the primary goal of the District program. These range from simple items such as toiletries, laundry supplies and food supplies, to transportation items such as gas cards, cab rides, and bus passes. FPS Indian Education Program Coordinator Melody Staebner also works with a Native American population of these students and their families as well.

Staebner

Anderson keeps in daily contact with the students she serves, and works closely with other community agencies that provide services for young people in transition, such as the YWCA shelter, Youthworks, and Stepping Stones Resource Center. One of her roles for students is that of advocate. The burdens of dealing with the government (Social Security applications, court appearances) or even with teachers or administrators (the consequences of poor attendance or academic performance) without an adult can be overwhelming for an unaccompanied youth to handle.

For the record, FPS served nearly 150 homeless students during the 2010-11 school year. In 2011-12, it will likely serve more than that. (Over 130 have been served so far; 53 are being served right now.)

Many students do not self-identify as homeless, in order to avoid the attention it will bring. As such, educating District personnel (administrators, teachers, support staff and even bus drivers) about homeless situations and its indicators is not just important for providing services, but also to make sure they have the best chance to resume or continue their education at grade level during a homeless experience.

(More information and resources on homelessness in our area is available on the City of Fargo website.)

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