Dallas-area school districts are seeing more homeless children this year compared with last year, a nationwide trend spawned by families losing their jobs, their houses - and struggling just to pay bills.
In the Carrollton-Farmers Branch school district, the number of students classified as homeless has spiked 185 percent during the 2008-09 school year. Garland's numbers have jumped by 86 percent, while DISD has enrolled about 100 more homeless students so far this year. With more than three months remaining in the school year, advocates for homeless families expect the numbers to rise.
"It's not just poor people," says Toni Gallego, Irving's homeless liaison, who works inside a portable building next to Irving High School. "It's middle-class people who have lost their homes, who have put up their homes to rent and are living with their in-laws."
The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth and the advocacy group First Focus conducted a survey last fall and found 330 school districts reporting the same number of homeless students or more than they had the entire previous year.
The groups noted that the increase in homelessness challenges districts in a number of ways, including higher transportation costs and logistical issues in making sure children have a way to school.
Districts will, however, see some relief in the new stimulus bill recently signed into law. The law includes an estimated $70 million in grants for states that want to provide additional services - meals and transportation, for example - to homeless children.
Under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a homeless child is defined as one who does not have a regular or adequate place to stay at night. It can include children sharing a home with nonfamily members or children who are staying in a motel or are living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings or in substandard housing.
Advocates for the homeless say children are particularly vulnerable because their education suffers.
"Kids who are homeless tend to change schools a number of times because mom or dad are on the move all the time," said Mark Pierce, who manages DISD's homeless education program. "Every time they switch schools, they fall behind six weeks in their grade level."
Homeless children may also experience emotional issues or feel embarrassed if their friends find out about their circumstances.
Arktavian Brady said she tries to be positive and encouraging with her 6-year-old son, Amin, a Carrollton-Farmers Branch student. But she doesn't shy away from the truth.
"I tell him this is not the only hardship you'll go through. I tell him life is hard," she said. "I'm trying to get him ready for the future. I tell him, you can't just lay around and feel bad for yourself."
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Last month, Brady and Amin slept in a van along with Brady's mom. After the van broke down, the family moved into a $200-a-week motel room. Employees involved in Amin's after-school program helped pay for it. Brady has a part-time job now and is also attending a trade school to become a pharmacy technician. Last week, the family moved into an apartment, eager to start fresh.
But not everyone is that fortunate.
Last week, a family in Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD moved into another family's garage because their lender foreclosed on their house, said Debby Millican, assistant director of student services. That district has enrolled 356 homeless students thus far. Last year, it had 126 homeless students.
Under the law, homeless students are required to have access to the same public education that's provided to other students. That means they can stay in the same school even if they move outside of the district's boundaries. But liaisons have to convince parents that it's best to keep their child in one school for an entire year.
"When you don't even have the same curriculum, you could see how that would impact a child's education," said Gallego, Irving's liaison. "So we really encourage the children and the parents that they have a right to stay in the same school."
Districts often provide homeless students with passes so they can ride the bus or light-rail system to school. The districts are required to provide meals, give out uniforms, backpacks, pencils, notebooks, even pillows and blankets.
At the Dallas Life Foundation in downtown Dallas, students say living in a shelter can be challenging. They have to stay close to their parents and eat meals at the designated time, even if it means getting up at 6 a.m. on the weekend.
Courtney Berrong, 15, said she had to quit the junior varsity basketball team because she felt unsafe walking from practice to the shelter after sunset.
Her sister, Tiffany Berrong, 14, said she's lost 30 pounds since moving there with her mom in September. Because of after-school activities, she sometimes misses the shelter dinner served at 5 p.m. for women.
The after-school programs are particularly beneficial because they provide homeless students with a sense of stability and they address learning gaps.
Said DISD's Pierce: "That's one of the good things about having funding for after-school programs is they don't have to go back to the motel or shelter."