The number of homeless students in Durango School District 9-R has increased by 63 percent in recent years.
During the 2016-17 school year, 68 homeless students were identified in the district, and last year, the number increased to 111 students, according to the Colorado Department of Education. Across La Plata County, 157 students were identified as homeless during the 2017-18 school year.
The living conditions for the 111 homeless students varied. Fifty-six were living with friends or family, 27 were living in hotels and motels and 25 were living in shelters or transitional housing. Three were considered unsheltered. All those living conditions fit the definition of homelessness under federal law.
It is unknown why a growing number of students are without homes, said Heather Pyeatt, who administers district services for homeless students.
One of the reasons may be the high cost of housing in Durango, said Jackie Oros, 9-R’s chief student services officer. Another reason may be that 9-R is getting better at identifying students who are homeless, she said.
The district is required by law to identify homeless students. Those students may face challenges that their peers do not, such as trouble commuting to school, instability in their home life and lack of access to health care, Pyeatt said.
Judy Woody’s elementary-aged grandchildren are among the students without a permanent home. Three years ago, the Woody family lost their home in Southwest Horizon Ranch, a subdivision east of Durango after the property manager told them their lease would not be renewed.
As a result, the family, including Woody’s husband, sons and grandchildren, have been camping outside in the summer and staying in motels in the winter, she said. Her three grandchildren have lived with her for two of the three years. Now, they are all living in the Durango Community Shelter. Woody said she has worked hard to keep her grandchildren in the same elementary school despite moving around.
“They love the kids there,” she said.
Woody, who has lived in Durango for 25 years, used to work for Community Connections, a Durango-based nonprofit that serves residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She continued working for a year after the family lost their home, but then she hurt her knee, went on medical leave and eventually lost her job. Now, the family has some income from her husband’s Social Security disability benefits.
The family has searched for housing but has been unable find anything. Other landlords were unwilling to accept the Woodys because the family was unable to pay $6,000 to Southwest Horizon Ranch for damages to their previous home. It’s a charge Woody is disputing.
“I am the kind of person that doesn’t ask for help, but finally, I had to,” she said.
The family eventually found help through a 9-R staff member.
Woody’s son, Austin Woody, developed a close relationship with his teacher, Devon Parson. Parson taught Austin at Pathways to Independence, a 9-R transition program for students with disabilities who are between the ages of 18 and 21.
In November, Woody could not pick up Austin and his brother from school because of a major storm, so Parson started contacting agencies for help.
When he called La Plata Youth Services, he learned about the La Plata County Regional Collaborative Management Program, and he referred the family to the group for long-term help.
“That’s when things started working,” Woody said.
Woody said she would like to see other families develop good relationships with school staff so they can receive the same help.
The collaborative program brings together representatives from schools, nonprofits, health care providers and the county’s department of human services to discuss how to help families. Housing Solutions for the Southwest, a member of the collaborative, is helping the family find housing, Woody said.
District 9-R has also helped the family by arranging for a school bus to pick up Woody’s grandchildren at the shelter. The family’s truck is from 1998 and is not always reliable.
“It’s giving the old truck a rest,” she said.
Transportation is just one of the services the district provides to homeless children to help ensure they can succeed in school.
“Our total mission is to remove the barriers that homeless families are usually faced with and ensure that students are completing school so that they have a ticket out of their situation,” Oros said. “School is their best opportunity for them to have a different life.”
In many cases, 9-R identifies students who are homeless when they are enrolled because the families are asked to provide proof of residency and they are unable to, Oros said.
However, relationships between school staff and families are also important in identifying homeless students because teachers and other staff may notice changes in the students during the school year. Students may come to school wearing the same clothes every day or their hygiene may notably change and that may prompt school staff to ask parents or guardians about it, Oros said.
“Creating those climates of caring and really an emphasis on forming positive relationships with families – it allows families to share information that they may not otherwise share,” Oros said.