Some School Districts Seeing Many More Homeless Students

Some School Districts Seeing Many More Homeless Students

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Some Wasatch Front school districts believe they are seeing many more homeless students this fall and they aren't certain why.

The number of homeless students in school districts has been on the rise each year. But the numbers in Davis, Granite, Jordan and Salt Lake City school districts have taken a leap this fall.

"We have never had this many this early in the year," said Mary Ann Nielson, Davis School District's homeless liaison. "Usually the high point is in February."

Though leaders don't know why there are so many in the district this year -- approximately 1,300 -- Nielson said factors might include loss of jobs, little affordable housing and high health costs.

This year Jordan reported more than 1,700 homeless students while Granite so far has around 700.

"Most of the students have no idea that there are homeless kids sitting next to them," Nielson said. "It is because we don't see it that people aren't aware."

Nielson said many parents are employed but having a hard time making ends meet. They live in motels, shelters, trailers, campgrounds and storage sheds. Nielson said many double up with other families in apartments, hoping landlords don't find out.

"I would say the majority are working parents in minimum-wage jobs who can't find affordable housing," Nielson said. "And we know we have many more than numbers indicate because they don't have to let us know."

But if families do allow themselves to be identified as homeless, districts can help out.

Districts work with community shelters to make sure students have clothing and food and can blend in with other students and have the services needed to learn in school.

Nielson said she also works to find immunization documents and birth certificates and refers parents to service agencies.

"It is hard to help the child until you help the parent," Nielson said. "The system is hard to navigate, so a lot of them just give up."

Maggie Laun, school counselor at Jackson Elementary in inner-city Salt Lake City, often recruits students by visiting area motels. She finds children, provides them with clothes and supplies and gets them in the classroom.

But the goal is to keep them coming to school each day, an effort that also keeps some children at least temporarily out of potentially dangerous situations like drugs and alcohol and abuse.

"Some of these kids are exposed to a side of life that I hope I never understand," said Laun, who also makes a point to discuss safety procedures with homeless students to ensure they are prepared.

Salt Lake also donates eyeglasses and refers students to free health and dental clinics when needed.

"We don't want to end up being a social service agency, but my goal is to make sure kids are taken care of enough that they can concentrate in class," Laun said.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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