Home Mesa Peeps Back to school: Homeless children face unique struggles

Back to school: Homeless children face unique struggles

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A New Leaf CEO Michael Hughes. (Submitted photo)

Returning to school is an exhilarating time for children, but for the 29,537 homeless students in Arizona, this time of year can be a daunting experience.

A New Leaf has been helping vulnerable children for 45 years, and our work with homeless students has given us insight into their unique challenges and ways to improve their lives.

For children living in emergency shelter, temporary housing, or on the streets, the uncertainty of living arrangements can elicit deep anxiety. Worries about hunger, clothing and shame dominate the lives of young children and youth whose families are in transition. Frequent isolation leads to severe emotional and behavioral issues – obstacles that would be crushing for adults. Yet our state’s homeless students are expected to function in school alongside their peers.

Nationwide, the country is facing a crisis. The number of homeless children in public schools has doubled since before the recession, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Many families continue to struggle financially even as the economy recovers from the housing collapse of 2008-2009.  And school costs continue to rise: the cost of sending a child back to school is up to $673 for the average family, says the National Retail Federation, an increase of 54.8 percent over the last 10 years.

For educators, the impact is felt across the system as public schools work to address the financial and emotional needs of homeless children. Teachers find themselves striving not only to help children learn but also to clothe them, feed them, keep them clean, and counsel them through stress and trauma, a flurry of activities that can interfere with classroom progress.

Children move with their families to multiple locations as they seek shelter. And every time children move, they fall further behind; it takes children an average of 4-6 months to recover academically after changing schools.  At A New Leaf’s family shelter and after school programs, the priority is to keep children in the same school, focusing on transportation, peer support and outreach with the district. Staying in the same school helps a child find stability in a chaotic situation with a better chance of academic success.

The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act guarantees protections such as a student’s right to enroll in school even without a permanent address. This law is the cornerstone for ensuring equal access to education for children who are homeless in our state.

But there is more we can do:

  • Expand the state’s network of stabilized housing to provide a secure home environment for children as they go to school.
  • Invest in programs that help homeless parents with the significant costs of education, especially transportation, school required clothing or supplies, and activities like driver’s education or extra-curricular events.
  • Mobilize community volunteers to tutor homeless students and provide a helping hand to struggling families.
  • Empower teachers as advocates to understand the issues around homelessness and the unique needs of this at-risk population.

As a community, all of us can help in the safety, nourishment, and progress of our Valley’s homeless students. While homelessness is a formidable challenge, helping a young person in need today is an investment for our future – and the right investment for Arizona.

-Michael Hughes is CEO of A New Leaf, a Mesa charity committed to helping local families in need.

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