Local schools offer stability for homeless students

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CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. (AP) — During the time between the opening school bell Friday morning and later Friday night, at least three more students in Chambersburg Area School District would become homeless.

Late Friday morning, Mary Shull-Lambert, a social worker and homeless liaison for the district, was anticipating a conversation in the afternoon with a mother of three students. She had been in communication with Children and Youth Services, discussing what would happen to the students when the family was evicted just after 9 p.m.

"(The mom) knows what that means," Shull-Lambert said. "That's a hard conversation to have. You have to think, if you have no plan, nowhere to go, and she knows she doesn't, you've got to think about where these kids need to be."

The answer is likely foster care. Eviction has been a persistent problem for this mother and her children, Shull-Lambert said. It's come to the point where she has exhausted all resources, and is not welcome with a single relative or friend. She cannot secure a spot in an affordable housing community or even a shelter. Shull-Lambert knows because she has investigated every option she knows about.

"I know I personally sit here and think, 'I can't imagine.' Not a family member, my own dad saying 'I'm sorry, I'm not going to lose my house, you can't come here," she said. "It's just hard for me to wrap my brain around what these families and kids go through."

CASD had 61 students who had been identified as homeless as of Friday morning, and 100 by the end of last school year. As the story above demonstrates, the number can fluctuate day to day.

"The reality is, you can be one situation away. It's nondiscriminatory," said Tammy Stouffer, director of support services. "We don't want people to think this is a classic 'poor' issue."

Being homeless usually doesn't mean a student lives on the streets. In accordance with the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act, school districts identify students as homeless when they don't have a fixed regular residence.

Eviction is the most common cause of student homelessness, Carroll said. Other big reasons are domestic violence, illness in the family, loss of employment and death of the parent.

With their home lives in upheaval, students dealing with homelessness experience perhaps the only amount of stability in their lives at school.

"They're fed here, they're educated here, they're nurtured here. They're loved, and sometimes this is the only place that provides that for these children," said Kris Carroll, director of pupil services.

The district's priority is making sure a routine stays in place. The way to do that is providing the transportation for the students whose homelessness has taken them somewhere outside of the area of their regular school or even the district. Districts share the transportation work and costs if they can, Shull-Lambert said.

The McKinney-Vento Act requires districts to provide transportation to keep homeless students at school and in a stable environment.

"They just lost their home, they don't want to lose their school that they're connected to," Carroll said.

Once a student gets acclimated to their new environment, or once it becomes permanent, they will usually transfer to the closest school. For example, CASD transported a student to and from Chambersburg last year who was placed with a family in McConnellsburg after a parent died. It was best for the student to stay at the home school for a time, but once the student got used to the new environment and made friends, she enrolled at a school in her new town, Stouffer said. The benefit of providing the transportation basically ran out.

Eventual foster care may be the consequence of student homelessness in the most serious cases. The amount of time a student remains identified as homeless depends on the specific situation.

Most times the situation does not involve living on the streets, like most people might imagine, Stouffer said. The most common way of living is "doubled up," or temporarily living in another household, Shull-Lambert said. Some live in hotels or homeless shelters.

"We do have kids that live in campers and tents, and depending on the time of year it is, that may be OK and that may not be OK," Shaull-Lambert said. "We don't make that decision, they would automatically be identified as homeless."

CASD does what it can to support students dealing with homelessness and with other issues at home. The district has several food and clothing drive events throughout the year, and families can get what they need from them. Shull-Lambert said part of her job is reaching out to families and sharing with them organizations that can help.

Less than 1 percent of the district population identifies as homeless, and the real number could be higher since not all families choose to accept the homeless identification, according to Shull-Lambert. A lot of times she doesn't work directly with the students, but deals with parents.

She finds that the students can often handle their lives themselves, and in doing so develop an important life skill that leads them to be successful despite what they've been through.

"The kids are resilient, kids are amazing," Shull-Lambert said.

A Chambersburg Area Senior High School senior shared her story Saturday, just in time to be published with this story:

"All I've wanted to do is finish school and make something of my life. This year has been full of blood, sweat and tears. But I kept pushing forward and still am. But in my time of hardship I've been rejected from homeless shelters, housing programs, even churches have hung up on me. My family is not able to help. I've been to five places this year alone. But my family at CASHS has helped me as much as they can, I couldn't be more grateful. Even though I'm having hard times, I never forget to give back whenever I have a chance to. Things have gotten a little better but (it) is still very hard. But it's true when they say 'you don't know what you have 'til it's gone.' I've went with out showers, a bed, a fridge, food, health care due to lack of transportation. I just keep telling myself if I keep pushing there is no way I can fail, and I won't."





Information from: Public Opinion, http://www.publicopiniononline.com

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AMBER SOUTH - (Chambersburg) Public Opinion


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