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No place to call home: South Washington County teens face homelessness, gaps in service

Christian Cupboard came to the No Kid Hungry event June 11 prepared with food packs. Katie Nelson / RiverTown Multimedia

WASHINGTON COUNTY — For a staggering number of students in the South Washington County School District, there is no home for them to return to after school.

According to Crystal Gentry, South Washington County Schools' homeless student coordinator, there are currently about 200 students considered homeless in one way or another. Gentry estimates a much larger number — most likely between 400 and 600 — are actually experiencing homelessness. With an enrollment of nearly 19,000 students in District 833, this would line up with the state average of between 2 and 3 percent of students who are homeless.

For students, homelessness can take many shapes, from living with their family in a hotel, another family members' home or even in a car together. The vast majority of those considered homeless live in this kind of situation with family.

But about 5 percent of students experiencing homelessness are doing it alone. These teenagers are known as unaccompanied youth.

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Gentry identified about 26 unaccompanied youth in the school district this year, who may be couchsurfing with friends, living out of a car or even tents.

As the school district, county and community work to support high schoolers experiencing homelessness, students can still slip through the cracks with gaps in services.

Defining definitions

Wilder Research completes a Minnesota Homeless Study every three years, last done in 2015. In that report released in November 2016, an estimated 2,500 Minnesotans aged 17 or younger experience homelessness on a given night. Just like the school district, Wilder Research considers these numbers conservative.

At least 130 unaccompanied minors were counted in the metro area, with a total of 213 across the state.

The U.S. Department of Education reported in 2016 that more than 100,000 students were considered unaccompanied youth across the country. Over 1.3 million students were considered homeless nationwide under McKinney-Vento in 2014.

These numbers can be problematic for service providers, beyond just the sheer volume.

A barrier, for both those experiencing homelessness and those trying to connect them with services, is the conflicting definitions of what it means to be homeless.

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The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act — which requires every school district in the country to designate a homeless student coordinator to find, track and assist homeless students — states that a student is considered homeless if she or he does not have one stable place to stay every night and with safe and sufficient space.

This definition includes students who are with their family doubled up with another family as guests, living in a hotel or motel, living in an emergency shelter or other options.

McKinney-Vento requires school districts to help students stay in their "school of origin" — or the school last attended before becoming homeless — by providing free lunches and transportation to and from school.

"I think a lot of our students still want to be in school despite everything that's going on in their life," Gentry said. "A lot of students still see school as a safe, consistent, supportive space for them to go to."

The federal Housing and Urban Development definition — the one many counties have to adhere to in order to receive funding for services — is more stringent.

On top of that, there are other state and grant definitions that providers must work with.

Certain programs or services are funded depending on different examples of homelessness.

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Sarah Tripple, with Washington County community services, said she and policy analyst Dana Dumbacher work with at least five different definitions of homelessness to secure funding and provide services.

"It depends on what funding you have and then make it work to the best of your ability," Dumbacher said. "We cobble together what we need for who doesn't fit under those other funding sources."

"You know what you're working with and find what you can," Tripple added.

'Generosity of this community'

Often, community members or smaller nonprofit organizations are able to step in to provide the assistance students need without the barriers county and school employees have to deal with.

One such organization, SoWashCo Cares, was launched just over two years ago by Cheryl Jogger.

SoWashCo Cares and No Kid Hungry provide resources that can help homeless students. Katie Nelson / RiverTown Multimedia

"Part of what we try to do is raise awareness," she said. "(Homelessness) is not what you picture."

Since its start, SoWashCo Cares has been used as a platform for connecting community members willing to help students in need of some sort of assistance.

A few months ago a student needed a pair of cleats, and Jogger said within an hour of posting the request on the Facebook page, somebody had responded and brought them to Gentry's office at Park High School.

Jogger was also impressed when the group once quickly donated a mattress for one family.

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"I haven't posted anything we haven't been able to get," Jogger said. "I can't say enough about the generosity of this community."

Brian Franck, a Cottage Grove police officer just leaving his post as the Park High school resource officer, remembers the efforts the community put in before Gentry took over coordination of assistance for homeless students.

He said he would look for signs, such as students coming to school without coats or not having anything to eat at lunch.

"I look at myself as their second dad," Franck said. "They don't always want to go to teacher or parents."

Franck and some others wanting to help have been able to bring resources to many of those students, but more on an individual level, he said. The police and public works departments brought in dozens of coats during a drive they orchestrated last December, as well as donating gift cards for students to use.

Though the larger systemic services will always be important, Franck said even some of these smaller donations can be incredibly valuable.

"It's amazing what a difference it can make ... the change you can see in their demeanor," he said.

At school

For unaccompanied minors, just staying enrolled in school is a daily challenge.

The last Wilder survey reported that over half the students experiencing homelessness received poor or failing grades. Nearly 50 percent also struggled with truancy or attendance, which the students mostly attributed to challenges getting to the actual school building.

However, Wilder reported attendance among homeless students has been increasing recently.

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"Some of our unaccompanied youth unfortunately end up not coming, but I think that's been very, very few," Gentry said. "I think overall we've been able to keep our students in our schools, which is, of course, the goal and what we want in the best interest of our students, to have some of that consistency."

When school isn't in session, though, it gets more complex for students experiencing homelessness.

Some schools try to ensure there's programming or summer school for those months off. Others can also give food packs and supplies to kids when they are not at school to receive them.

Sometimes though, this is where those students fall through the cracks.

"If they are able to be in a place long enough — because some of our unaccompanied youth, because some are couchsurfing and some are at least able to stay in a place for a couple months or a little bit more long term — if they are able to get the food there, then we'll get it there," Gentry said.

This extra food or supplies only last so long, though. If they're not in school, there's not always much the school district can do to help students.

This summer, the school district is launching another food program, No Kid Hungry, with Second Harvest Heartland to work on eliminating hunger among students both with and without homes.

About 1 in 5 students gets free and reduced meals during the school year, Jogger said. The district also offers free breakfast and lunches on weekdays during the summer.

Layers of vulnerability

New Richmond, Wis., District School Nurse Joan Simpson said students facing homelessness are also facing a litany of emotions from embarrassment to humiliation, not to mention a loss of privacy and choice.

The Wilder study reported that before becoming homeless one-third of youth up to 24 years old remained in an abusive situation because they felt they had nowhere else to go.

Around 90 percent of young people facing homelessness have some kind of trauma in their background, such as sexual abuse, living with a substance abuser, having an incarcerated parent or dealing with serious or chronic mental health issues.

Though social workers can't get housing or other resources for families or youth right away when they come in, Washington County social worker Jake Wasmund said they still try to send them on their way with connections to places including Stone Soup Thrift Shop, Christian Cupboard, Friends in Need Food Shelf or other local services. Gentry said she will refer students to mental health professionals, county services or other resource providers.

The Link, a youth outreach group centered out of Dakota County, works mostly with youth 18 to 24, seeing many at a drop-in Center in Apple Valley. They are also working on expanding into Washington County for drop-in services.

"We try to provide them with whatever they're in need of ... to make their situation a little safer than it is," The Link's Stephanie Plaster said.

The Link staff provide whatever a person needs to stay safe and healthy — such as food, laundry facilities, clean clothes, gift cards for gas, hygiene products — no matter what kind of housing situation they have worked out.

"Shelters can be scary for people," Plaster said. "Some people want to engage in survival sex rather than go to a shelter."

In these cases, she said, they will provide condoms, pregnancy tests and safe sex kits.

Experiencing homelessness as a young person can add all of these extra layers of vulnerability. Wilder reported that as much as 20 percent have admitted to being attacked or beaten.

It can be difficult for others to pick out these students who need help, and for many of them that's on purpose.

"If they don't want you to know, you're not going to know. ... Image is so important to teenagers," Plaster said. "They're going to figure out a way to be presentable and look good and fly under the radar."

Not knowing, of course, makes it more difficult for adults to connect students with resources.

"Unaccompanied youth are especially challenging," Jogger said. "It's hard for them to ask for help."

Breaking the cycle

Brian Kiley, director of homelessness ministry with CityGate, said homelessness can swiftly turn into an ugly cycle.

Over 75 percent of youth surveyed by Wilder in 2015 said they had experienced an earlier episode of homelessness. A quarter of homeless adults also told Wilder they had been homeless as a minor.

"Today's homeless youth are tomorrow's homeless," Kiley said.

As teenagers graduate high school or age-out of foster care, the services they depended on start evaporating.

Since 2014, the Minnesota Interagency Council on Homelessness reported a 22 percent increase in homeless youth, though homeless families decreased by 20 percent.

The services offered today, though helpful, often serve more or less as a band-aid to the problem, Kiley said. It takes systemic change to break the cycle.

Part of that change could be what's known as the housing first approach: getting people a stable place to stay before anything else.

Once they have a place to live — to unpack their bag — they are more likely to ask for help, Kiley said.

Although the services offered through organizations, the county or the school district are helpful to keep homeless youth as safe as they can, most providers know that the youth they're working with are still homeless when they leave.

To make matters more difficult, when teenagers start out homeless so young, their record follows them.

Plaster said homeless youth often engage in a lot of "survival crime," such as petty theft, trespassing, loitering, "things that if those young people had a home wouldn't be doing," she said. "And now they have a criminal record and they have a harder time finding housing."

The housing first approach, Kiley said, can be the one to get teens out of what could become a lifetime cycle of homelessness, before teenagers run into extra barriers.

One of Wilder's key findings, that most homeless students coordinators and community services providers tend to agree with, is that the largest barrier for homeless youth is that there's a shortage of affordable housing or shelters for them to access.

Therese Gilbertson, clinical supervisor with Washington County, said there's a shortage of both.

"When I first started, I think I would have put a shelter in the first priority," she said. "But affordable housing is at the same (position) now."

Moving forward

They also said that for various reasons, from difficulty with differing definitions and programming spread throughout such a large county, it can be challenging for organizations to work together and connect services to where they need to go.

"It's frustrating for me, it's frustrating for our county members, it's frustrating for our families when we can't get them the services we need because they're not available," Gentry said.

A new resurgence of the program Heading Home may help change that.

Tripple said Heading Home has "ebbed and flowed over the years," but it's now back in full swing. The group includes county staff, some out-of-county organizations and individual nonprofit organizations including The Link.

The goal is for those barriers to fade as they work together more and more, making it easier for services to get to those who need them.

Later this month, there will also be a few more opportunities for homeless families, with a new shelter opening in Hugo, augmenting the number of families that St. Andrew's Community Resource Center can house at the original Oakdale shelter. Up to 15 families can now be housed between the two locations.

In addition to offering shelter, St. Andrew's provides clothing, food assistance, rental assistance, job counseling and more for some parts of Washington County.

In the coming years, the number of homeless students in the district is likely to increase, as staff continues to identify them, in turn bringing services and resources their way.

Gentry is also working on training to help staff districtwide identify students who need help.

There are still so many barriers students have to deal with between themselves and services they need, but the work is beginning to chip away at them. The Heading Home group is working to head off homelessness, the school district is working to identify and assist homeless students, as well as feed them with more and more hunger initiatives. There will only be more to come as more students are identified and offered help.