Any child without a fixed, adequate evening residence is considered homeless by the federal government.
In the 2015-2016 school year, the last available statistics, 23,014 K-12 students were homeless in Colorado. According to the Colorado Department of Education, 112 students in La Plata County and 44 students in Montezuma County were reported as homeless and enrolled in school during the 2014-2015 school year. In 2017, Volunteers of America Durango Community Shelter and the Southwest Safehouse served 82 school-aged children. Rates of youth homelessness have been steadily increasing nationwide, with an increase of over 40,000 students reported in 2015-2016 alone.
While a small percentage of students (3 percent) sleep in unsheltered situations such as campgrounds or parking lots, a majority of homeless students live doubled up – sharing someone else’s home because of loss of housing or economic hardship. An additional 12 percent live (either unaccompanied or with their family) in emergency or transitional shelter facilities, with the remaining 10 percent housed in a hotels or motels because of lack of adequate housing.
These living situations pose immense challenges for homeless students, both in and out of the classroom. According to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, children experiencing homelessness may face many challenges other low-income children may not, including poor social/emotional development, poor cognitive and physical development, poor classroom engagement and more.
Losing a stable home environment is a traumatic event that can impact the ability of a child to regulate his or her social and mental well-being, potentially resulting in behavioral challenges or school failures.
Many students experiencing homelessness also change schools frequently because of unstable living situations and family mobility. Such recurrent school changes not only disrupt access to and mastery of classroom information, but also force students to adapt to new environments, teachers and classmates. Once a family has acquired housing, they are less likely to transfer their children to a different school or have gaps in schooling. This stabilization increases the children’s likelihood of academic success dramatically.
Despite the educational barriers posed by homelessness, enrolling homeless students in school can provide important and necessary supports. When a child is struggling with issues like not having a stable place to sleep, school can provide safety and security that may not exist elsewhere. Caring faculty and staff also help homeless students feel a sense of belonging in a consistent, positive environment, providing a foundation for continued student success.
Shelter facilities like VOA’s Durango Community Shelter and the safehouse provide tools necessary for homeless children and families to succeed in school. Families are provided with a warm, safe shelter, free laundry/linen facilities, three nutritious meals a day, clothing, toiletries and more. The shelters provide families with clean clothing, school supplies, backpacks, hair cut vouchers and bus tokens – necessities sometimes overlooked.
VOA has a strong partnership with Durango School District 9-R and the Tri-County Head Start Program, and in-house advocates help families through the local school enrollment process.
Additional help for homeless students can be accessed through the State of Colorado Coordinator for Homeless Education or the school district’s local homeless education liaison. Students or families residing in District 9-R can contact Student Support Services at 247-5411, ext. 1461, to receive assistance in enrolling or remaining enrolled in school while facing homelessness.
Rachel Bauske Frasure is Volunteers of America division director. She prepared this column with assistance from Lucas Knudsen, VOA administrative assistant. Reach them at 259-1021.