By Amanda Litvinov
Wisconsin school social worker Ann Forbeck got a text a few days ago confirming that a student she has worked with for two years will graduate this spring. She couldn’t be more proud.
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“This young man had a terrible accident and is in a wheelchair and homeless. He’s been couch surfing,” she said. “He was so at risk of not graduating, but he’s a really upbeat young man who wants to work with animals and make something of his life.”
He had the will, but like other homeless students, he needed some extra supports to ensure not only that he could get to school, but that he had clean clothes, school supplies, connections with community groups and someone to turn to when an unexpected obstacle came up.
He is just one of 525 students identified as homeless this year among the district’s 10,000 students.
But if the budget resolution drafted by Rep. Paul Ryan and recently passed by House Republicans were enacted, federal funds designated to help homeless students would be cut drastically, along with all federal education programs, including Title I funds that help schools meet the needs of students from low-income families, and IDEA for special education.
Beginning in 2016 after the two-year bipartisan budget deal reached in December ends, the Ryan-Republican budget would cut services for homeless students by almost 9 percent, and then cut much more, as much as 22 percent by 2024.
Forbeck—who works not only in Paul Ryan’s home state and congressional district, but in his hometown of Janesville—is saddened that lawmakers would be proud of a budget that could take away the staff and resources that have helped to decrease the income-based achievement gap and improve the graduation rate in Janesville.
Her counterpart in the nearby Beloit School District, homeless liaison Robin Stuht, called the prospect “terrifying.”
“I will never understand why we don’t invest more in our future, which is our children. How can you leave children struggling?” asked Stuht, who is working to serve more than 600 homeless students in her 7,000 student district.
“I just don’t see how some of them will stand a chance if we take more funding away, because we’re really just hanging on with what we do have.”
The two women worked together to establish a nonprofit called 16:49, so named because 16 hours and 49 minutes is the amount of time between the end of one school day and the beginning of the next.
The project focuses on finding resources and shelter for unaccompanied youth, meaning those who are homeless and without a parent or guardian. With the community rallying behind them, Forbeck and Stuht established 16:49 as a nonprofit and earlier this year opened a residential home for girls age 18-21 who are working to complete their high school education.
Robin Stuht produced a documentary on the local epidemic of homeless students
The number of homeless students in Wisconsin jumped from 5,358 in the 2003-04 school year to more than 13, 300 in 2010-11, according to the state’s Department of Public Instruction.
Forbeck says many Janesville families were hit both by the national economic crisis and by the 2009 closing of one of the county’s largest employers, the local GM plant. In the nine years that Stuht has served as the homeless liaison to students in Beloit, the number of homeless students went from 125 to more than 600.
Nationally, the rate of homeless children and youth is higher today than at any point since data has been collected on homelessness. Schools identified 1,168,354 children and youth as homeless during the 2011-12 school year, with 43 states reporting an increase.
And that number is an underestimate, according to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. Not all school districts reported data on homeless students to the U.S. Department of Education, and the data collected represents only those children enrolled in school and identified. Finally, the number does not include all preschool-age children, or any infants and toddlers.
The McKinney Vento Act enacted in the late 1990s helped to broaden the definition of homeless students to include those doubling up with other families as well as those staying in shelters or in cars, and required that districts provide transportation to homeless students.
But it’s not enough to simply get a homeless student to the school building, say Forbeck and Stuht, and that’s why the federal funding is crucial. Their role is to remove barriers to the child’s full participation in their education, which includes everything from ensuring their access to food and school supplies to making sure they can participate in activities with their peers.
“I’ve gone to the music store to rent a clarinet and buy music so a homeless kid could play in the school band,” said Forbeck. “I’ve bought wrestling shoes for kids who made the team but couldn’t afford the equipment. I’m about to contact a mom staying in a shelter with her daughter, who made the varsity pom squad to tell her the community has donated the clothes she needs for that.”
Kids who experience homelessness can still experience everything that schools have to offer, say Forbeck and Stuht.
“For these kids, school usually represents the most stable thing in their lives,” said Stuht. “They know who will be there for them, they know what they can count on, and they know people care and they can come to us when absolutely everything else in their lives is chaotic. Here they can count on two meals and it’s safe, there’s no yelling and violence and they can get away from that stress caused by poverty and homelessness.
To do anything to jeopardize that stability is just wrong.”