Each year, Wichita Public Schools face a familiar challenge: meeting the needs of thousands of homeless students.
Each case is different—some families are living with relatives, and some are living out of their car. To address the issue, the district relies on the federal government’s McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance program. As KMUW’s Sean Sandefur reports, it can bring a level of normalcy to an otherwise chaotic situation.
Last year, Wichita Public Schools reported 2,450 homeless students. That’s a big jump from 2011, when there were roughly 1700.
School officials say it’s hard to determine what’s causing a steady increase each year. But what isn’t difficult is figuring out how families go from homeowners to homeless.
“At the beginning of my daughter’s eighth grade year, I found myself having to live with my mother,” says Senta Washington, a substitute teacher for Wichita Public Schools.
Washington is in her mid-forties, but looks much younger. She wears gold-framed glasses and a purple blouse. Despite her job, a steady income seems to always be out of reach. She has fibromyalgia, which causes chronic, widespread pain, and her teenage daughter, whom Washington didn’t want to identify, has severe asthma and allergies. Frequent doctor’s appointments and sick days kept Washington from doing her job. She says money problems surfaced pretty quickly.
“I found myself not being able to work as much because of my health and her health," she says. "So, without being able to work, I could not pay the mortgage on my home.”
Her house eventually went into pre-foreclosure, and she struggled to find a place to sleep. Washington put her belongings in a storage shed, and for a moment, considered sleeping there with her daughter.
“I can handle something like that. That’s just an adult situation. But she was stressing out a lot more. I believe in being frank, not sugar coating anything," Washington says. "So, just being honest with her and letting her know that I’m sorry. I failed. And this is where we are.”
Luckily, she says, it never came to that. Washington slept in her RV, which she previously thought was going to be taken away. It lacked running water, and for nearly a week, she and her daughter relied on a gym membership to go to the bathroom and to take showers. She tried to remain positive, and even grateful.
“I just kept saying to myself and reminding my daughter, remember, there are people that are staying in the park tonight. So, we still have a roof over our heads," Washington says. "Although we don’t have our home, we still have somewhere to go."
Washington quickly received help from her family. She squeezed into her parents’ home and focused on her daughter’s education. But as summer vacation ended, she quickly realized that she wouldn’t be able to afford the fees associated with registering for classes. She eventually reached out to Wichita Public Schools and received assistance from the McKinney-Vento program. It’s here she met Cynthia Martinez, the program's liaison for Wichita Public Schools.
“There’s a couple of different definitions of homeless," Martinez says. "Usually we envision people on the streets, pushing carts, living under bridges. But under the McKinney-Vento Act, there are four different types of classifications of homeless.”
Martinez helps to ensure an equal education to homeless children. The district relies on the McKinney-Vento Act, which was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1987. It allocates federal funding for a number of different homeless outreach initiatives throughout the country. It also includes programs for school districts. As Martinez explains, the term “homeless” can mean a lot of things.
“The first one is doubled-up, living with family or friends," she says. "The families have nowhere to go due to economic loss, eviction, or maybe they can’t play utilities. And so because of that, they go and live with a family or friend. And it could be for one day, it could be for a week, but it’s temporary.”
It also includes families who are living in hotels or campgrounds, or in emergency housing like homeless shelters or domestic violence centers. Some have no place to go, resorting to a car, public parks or abandoned buildings. There are more than 1,000 students who currently fit into one of these scenarios attending Wichita Public Schools, and Martinez expects more as the year goes on. Martinez says the goal of the program is to provide a stable place for homeless students during a chaotic time in their lives.
“We have people who have moved five or 10 times. And if the children had to change schools five or 10 times, then education would be lost during that process. So we’re able to provide stability, we’re able keep the children in their school of origin, which is where they started," Martinez says. "So even if they move from the north side of town to the south side of town, we’re able to make sure that they can continue to go to that school."
Martinez says that’s huge. Students can keep their same teachers, their same friends, and their same routine. When life outside of school might by in flux, the classroom can remain familiar. And it’s not enough to simply get kids to school each day: Martinez says the program also waives registration fees and after-school activity fees. It can provide school supplies, clothing and even athletic equipment.
Washington says the program helped her daughter continue playing percussion in the school band.
“That was a piece of normalcy that my daughter got to have. I was extremely, extremely thankful for that," she says.
Washington seems hopeful for the future. She says her daughter has a great outlook too. Issues with a steady income persist, but Washington has moved out of her parents' house and back into her own home. She says she’s still on the fence for foreclosure, but she has been able pay her daughter’s school fees for this current academic year.
She’s also volunteering for the McKinney-Vento program. A self-described couponer, she teaches other parents to hunt for the best deals and save money.
“I think it’s important for people to give back," she says. "Because you never know when it’ll be you that needs it. I’ll be a forever volunteer.”
Martinez says there’s no typical case of homelessness. She says it can happen to anyone, with any job.
“We have people in our program that were at Hawker-Beech, that were at Boeing," she says. "And for them, it’s so hard for them to think, 'Oh my goodness, now I’m homeless.'”
Martinez tells them they’re not alone. Even during the summer, which can be especially hard on parents, the program provides babysitting for younger students and daytime activities that include lunch and breakfast.
The number of homeless students in Wichita Public Schools continues to grow each year. But Martinez says she’s confident she and her staff can continue to provide a safe haven and a sense normalcy that every student deserves.
Follow Sean Sandefur on Twitter @SeanSandefur.
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