Homeless children in Waupaca County are seldom seen sleeping on benches or under bridges.
The problem is hidden, except to social workers and school staff who work directly with homeless families. They are helping children who move from one house or apartment to another, staying with a relative or friend until patience and charity are exhausted.
There are children in Waupaca County who sleep on sofas or in sleeping bags on the floor, in homes they cannot call their own. Some live with grandparents to remain in a local school district, while their parents live in homeless shelters in Stevens Point or Appleton. Others are in family crisis housing because their mothers fled a home with an abusive spouse.
“Homelessness includes families living in campers or cars, living with another family, living in less than ideal conditions,” said Maureen Markon, director of special education in Waupaca.
Markon said the Waupaca School District has identified 66 students who are homeless.
Suzette Fountain, a school social worker and homeless liaison in Clintonville, said there are at least 20 homeless students in that district.
“We don’t see people living on the streets, but we’re seeing more children living with other families, living in hotels, living in shelters in Appleton or Shawano,” Fountain said.
Both Waupaca and Clintonville have a growing number of children who are identified as homeless.
School districts are required under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act to ensure that homeless children receive free, public education.
Enacted in 1987, the law requires schools to identify homeless children and “eliminate barriers to (their) enrollment, retention and success in school.”
Under the law, homeless children are identified as those who “lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence,” live in a motel, in a shelter, with other families or friends, in a vehicle or in a public place because their family have no housing.
As examples of homeless children, Fountain described a student whose mother was staying in a homeless shelter in another county while the girl stayed with her grandmother in the Clintonville area, in order to remain in the school district.
Another family, whose home was lost in a fire, was temporarily considered homeless while they lived in a hotel waiting for their insurance claim.
In a third family with three children, both parents had lost their jobs and their home. They were living with other members of their church.
Anne Collins-Reed is a social worker and homeless liaison in the Waupaca School District. She points out that foster children are often among the homeless.
“Foster kids can age out of foster care while they are still in high school,” Collins-Reed said. “They have no place to go.”
According to a 2010 report by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, less than three in five of former foster children in Wisconsin have a high school degree at age 19.
Collins-Reed said there are ongoing efforts to change state law to allow foster children to remain in foster care until after they graduate from high school.
To identify homeless families, Markon said the Waupaca School District includes a survey with each registration packet.
The survey asks parents if they are sharing a home with a friend or relative due to financial reasons, if they are living in a hotel or campground, being evicted from their residence, living in a vehicle or camper. The survey concludes by asking if the parent wants to be contacted by a school social worker.
Collins-Reed receives a copy of each survey that suggests a family is homeless.
“Ms Collins contacts these families to determine if they truly qualify as homeless,” Markon said. “She provides those families with a list of resources, supports provided through the school district and community, and educates them on their rights.”
In Clintonville, Fountain also contacts families who have been identified as homeless.
“I contact them and discuss their situation,” Fountain said. “I give them information about resources in the community, let them know they qualify for free lunches. All school fees are waived for homeless students, and we help them financially so they can participate in field trips and other student activities.”
Fountain said the school district’s goal “is to help homeless students overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of them going to school.”
Markon said, “The district has a responsibility to inform people of the services that are available. We also have a responsibility to track the academic progress of homeless students. If they are struggling academically, we provide support services.”
She noted that a number of programs are in place that benefit all students, but are especially helpful in ensuring that homeless children do not fall through the cracks.
Title I and other programs target at-risk students, while SAGE provides smaller elementary classrooms.
“Under SAGE. class sizes are no more than 18 students, so we can focus on every student’s individual needs,” Markon said.
“As a district, we really do a lot because we care about the kids,” Fountain said, regarding Clintonville’s efforts. “But, it’s still not enough. We can’t take their families’ economic situation away.”