Homeless students on rise

More New Hampshire students than ever are facing the challenge of going to school without a permanent place to live.

In a four-year period, the number of homeless students in New Hampshire jumped 44 percent, from 1,439 during the 2006-07 school year to 2,573 in 2009-10, according to the state Department of Education.

In one year alone, from 2008-09 to 2009-10, 441 additional students were classified as homeless, a 21 percent increase, a spike education officials attribute to the impact the recession has had on families.

“There’s been a bubble and I suspect we’re not through it yet,” Lynda Thistle-Elliott, director of homeless education for the state Department of Education, said last week. “I have received contact calls and emails from districts who are seeing homeless students that either had never seen them before or in numbers that appear to them to be much greater.”

However, the typical image people may have of homelessness – living in cars or in camps – applies to only a small fraction of the students, according to the data.

Of the students identified as homeless in 2009-10, 77 percent were “doubling-up” with a non-related family, while 12 percent were staying in shelters. Nine percent of homeless students in New Hampshire were staying in hotels or motels. Two percent were living unsheltered, which means they were staying in cars, parks, campgrounds and other places.

The homeless student data was part of an annual report released earlier this month called the KidsCount Survey, which measures the well-being of New Hampshire’s children. In 2009, state-funded emergency and transition shelters provided beds to nearly 5,000 people, of whom 17 percent were children under the age of 18, according to the report.

Data has shown students who are homeless are more likely to have health issues, underperform academically, have high rates of absenteeism and move from school to school.

Such children are vulnerable to having trouble in school, Terri Herzog, homeless outreach coordinator for the Keene School District, said in an interview last fall.

“It is hard for students to make academics a priority when they don’t know where they are going to be sleeping that night, so giving as much support as we can offer is really important,” she said.

However, it’s widely accepted that homeless students are vastly underreported for a variety of reasons. The Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 required all school districts to identify and report homeless students enrolled in schools, but that can be tricky, said Robert Cioppa, director of student services for the Nashua School District. Many students don’t want to admit it because of the stigma attached, Cioppa said.

Herzog’s job has been working with families, helping them during the application process of finding a home and also with immediate school needs, such as clothing and transportation.

“It’s heartbreaking and can be hard to deal with,” Herzog said. “But I’ve also been really, really inspired by the kids and families I’ve worked with because they are facing difficult situations. I would say many of them have an amazing attitude, so that definitely helps.”

Homelessness can come on suddenly for families, said Maureen Beauregard, president of New Hampshire Families in Transition – New Horizons. The bread winners of the families can lose a job and things can spiral out of control quickly, she said.

Families in Transition – New Horizons provides housing and services to homeless families. Beauregard said the demand for services keeps rising, but the homeless population that is increasing most rapidly is children. Not having a place to bring back friends or focus on schoolwork can have a significant impact on homeless adolescents, she said.

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