Part 2: The personal effect of homelessness

Homelessness series web logoHomelessness is a force that significantly affects and shapes the lives of those who experience it, especially when it comes to children, youth and their parents.

“(Homelessness) could go on for months and months and months,” said Cynthia Fredericks, Emergency Fund Resource Manager for Valley Outreach in Stillwater. “A lot of it has to do with being unable to find work or applying for disability. Homelessness does not always deal with mental illness or addiction.”

Homelessness is growing in the youth and family age group in Washington County, with 143 children counted as homeless in the January 2013 annual point-in-time count. According to Washington County Associate Planner of Community Services Diane Elias, the count aims to get a general idea of how many people are homeless on any given night in the county. That number has increased since 2007.

The Stillwater Area School District has recognized that this issue is a growing problem. It deals with an estimated 15 homeless students annually, according to district officials.

But what homelessness looks like varies according to the student’s age and grade level, and it doesn’t always fit the stereotypical definition of being homeless.

“What we’re seeing is an unfortunate circumstance that families are experiencing that’s causing some stability and transition issues,” District Learning Support Coordinator Rachel Larson said. “A common thing that is happening across the state is that schools are trying to get an idea of how many youth may be living with relatives or other close friends. Technically that constitutes being homeless if there’s a lack of a fixed regular nighttime residence or no fixed address. It’s hard because a lot of families are unaware of what could be provided as services from all the agencies in the state.”

Homelessness is known to affect students’ performance in school, and their emotional and social health.

“It changes their sense of stability and routine,” Larson said. “It can be frightening, and depending on the age of the student, they may need to process and talk to someone about what they’re experiencing.”

Homelessness as a problem in the district may come as a surprise to many.

“In Stillwater I don’t think you ever think of homelessness as an issue,” District 834 Spokesperson Carissa Keister said. “It’s not huge, but it is an issue. Those kids who are impacted by it, it’s a significant impact event. If it’s just one kid, it’s worth the effort it takes on behalf of our staff.”

Parents in unstable housing situations are also affected by the impact it has on kids, according to case managers at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, which provides a Community Resource Center (CRC) to help people out of such situations. It also has unique impacts directly on adults.

“When you’re in the upper-middle class, you have the luxury of time,” said Mike Fouts, Guardian Angels Hope for the Journey Home coordinator of operations and volunteers. “If a car breaks down, we can use the other car. While the other is broken, they can get the car fixed. There’s no luxury like that if you’re living paycheck to paycheck. We had a family who was staying with us that needed to use public transit. At first (the father) didn’t have a bike, so we’d arrange a ride to Sun Ray (transit stop) in the morning, but one day he had to walk back from there. It’s about five miles from there. It was cold, and he was laid up and had to miss work for a couple days because his feet were just raw. When someone is working, they want to work, but they need to find a place near public transportation if they can’t afford transportation.”

“I think (of) the toll it takes on parents when they aren’t able to provide things that they wish they could for their child or aren’t able to provide the type of stability they’d like to for their child,” District 834 Student Advocate Jessica Stephenson said. “I think that takes a great emotional toll on parents in addition to the stresses they’re already feeling trying to stabilize their situation.”

“When children are involved, the parents want to keep their kids as close as possible to a stable environment that they can with their schools,” Director of St. Andrew’s CRC Kellie Cardinal said. “Each day it’s really hard on the kids to go through something like this. Not only is their house different, but they have no control over what is happening to them.”

This is where the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act federal law comes into play. It guarantees services such as special transportation for students so they can continue attending the same school, even if they’re moved from place to place.

“It basically looks at removing barriers for students who are in that situation,” Larson said. “It looks at temporary support for transportation, food service assistance, some resource assistance, and then it also links families and students with county resources and agencies.”

Jonathan Young contributed to this story. More information about what resources are available and how you can help can be found in the third and final part of our series on Wednesday.

  • gregstaffa

    It is sad the the Minnesota Homeless Coalition has become so one focused. While housing is important they have stopped listening to the homeless in order to focus on political goals. Last month the coalition refused to listen to homeless stories about abuse by a homeless advocate. When homeless orgs like the Homeless coalition stop listening to the people they claim to serve we have failed them