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Missouri's homeless youth face educational challenges

November 07, 2003
'By: Kate Amburgey
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY -Homeless children are nine times as likely to repeat a grade and four times as likely to drop out of school, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

These numbers reflect statistics gathered in 2000 by the Department, which estimated that only 21 percent of homeless youth attended school regularly.

"Patterns of homelessness typically put children at risk of academic failure because there is no consistency in instruction," Lynn Barnett, Columbia's homeless coordinator for the public schools.

The Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act guarantees homeless children an education equal to that which they would recieve if they were not homeless.

Should a child become homeless while in school, the McKinney Act requires the school system to provide transportation from the child's new residence to the school of origin.

A child is considered homeless if they do not have a fixed nighttime residence. The census found that 7,264 children use shelters as their primary nighttime residence, 6,741 live in homes with more than one family, and 5,094 sleep in unsheltered facilities such as campgrounds, cars, and parks.

The McKinney Act also requires that all school districts have a Homeless Coordinator to work with families and children to assure that they continue their education and enroll in school as soon as possible.

Barnett says that even as the Homeless Coordinator she is frequently unaware when students become homeless.

"The reality is that so many families are on the brink of homelessness that up to 150 to 200 children become homeless at one point during the year," said Barnett.

Sometimes, the poorer the family the better off the children are.

"Services like Head Start aren't offered to families who make more than $8 an hour," said Cande Iveson, a senior policy analyst for the Citizens for Children. "I've seen parents who have refused a 50 cent raise in order to keep their child subsidies."

Children make up the largest percentage of people living in poverty. The number of children living in poverty is determined by the number of children participating in the free or reduced lunch programs at school, Iveson said.

"Many Columbians fail to realize that one-third of the city's students participate in these programs," Barnett said.

Families make up one-third of the people staying in Missouri homeless shelters.

"People usually think of drunk white males when they think of the homeless and never consider the disruption it causes to children's lives," Iveson said.

The Salvation Army Harbor House shelter in Columbia has hosted an average of 11 children a night over the past nine months. With no desks to study on, children often resort to studying in the facility's dining room and living room.

Thornhill reminisces of when a teacher, who moved away four years ago, would come to the shelter and tutor the children.

"The children usually need help with their homework, but we don't have the staff to help them," said Lucinda Thornhill, director of the Harbor House.

When the children do attend school, they often go without proper clothing or supplies.

The children are usually laughed at for living in a homeless shelter, which only adds to their feelings of isolation and reluctance to make friends, Thornhill said.

"Most families live in the shelters for six months until they recieve affordable housing, but the loss of education from constant moving around will follow these children for life," Thornhill said.