THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Dec. 6, 2010 --
With record highs in unemployment and thousands of Floridians forced out of their homes because they can’t pay the mortgage, public schools are seeing a huge rise in the number of homeless students.
In the 2002-2003 school year, the state counted 6,201 students as homeless. By 2009-2010, that number had risen to 49,104.
Florida posted an 11.9 percent unemployment rate for October, despite signs of stabilization and growth in the state. And state economists have projected that unemployment is likely to remain in the double digits until the second quarter of 2012.
“You know, we have some really difficult economic times now, the mortgage crisis and people losing their jobs,” said Lorraine Allen, director of the state homeless education program for the Florida Department of Education.
The rise in the number of homeless students has been a challenge for schools, which must respond despite budget cuts many systems have faced. Stimulus money helped a little bit, but that is running out, said Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.
Every school must have a homeless liaison, though it’s rarely the person’s entire job. And schools often must devote extra attention to such students, because they’re extremely at-risk.
“From the student perspective, losing your housing and experiencing homeless, it puts all of child development at risk,” said Duffield. “If you don’t have a regular place to stay, it’s really hard to focus in the classroom on learning. You may not know what’s going to happen when you get out of school.”
But schools, Duffield said, often become the most stable part in a youth’s life if he or she becomes homeless.
“Schools really become one of the most important parts of their safety net,” she said.
A homeless student is defined as one who lacks a permanent, night time residence. So, a child being bounced among relatives or family friends would also qualify.
“It’s not necessarily living in a shelter,” Allen said.
Students who are declared homeless are enrolled in the free lunch program and given aid in other ways, such as clothing and transportation assistance. If a student winds up living with a relative or friend outside of the original school district, the child can still be transported to the home school.
Yet, despite the assistance, schools often cannot blunt the impact of becoming homeless, said
Allen. She said school districts and the state have been able to do a better job in recent years in identifying students who are classified as homeless, which has also contributed to the jump in numbers over the past seven years.
Allen said the department and schools individually are trying to give as much support as they can to help the students overcome the academic obstacles by offering extra tutoring and providing school supplies. They are, however, banned by federal law from setting up specific academic programs for homeless students – an effort to prevent those students from being stigmatized.