In Dallas, the estimated number of homeless kids has been dismal recently. The Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance reports that the population of unaccompanied homeless kids is up 108 percent in just the last few years, and the number of homeless families is up 60 percent. And a recent Department of Education report now indicates that the number of homeless students across the country has also increased over the past year.
In Texas, the number of homeless students is up about 7 percent in the last year. In Dallas ISD, the number of homeless students is estimated to be over 3,000 -- there were around 3,400 homeless students at the end of the last school year, and that number can only go up with the increased student population.
One possible reason for the high number is that Dallas ISD has gotten better at identifying which kids are homeless. "We got a donation from Feed the Children awhile ago, and we had lots of high schools requesting the food," says Mark Pierce, who heads DISD's Homeless Education Program. "They were saying that kids were coming back every single weekend, they needed food. So we started finding out about more kids that are on their own. From there we organized Drop-In centers, where kids could get help."
The younger kids are usually more easy to identify, Pierce says. "For families, they're often homeless because of eviction, or they couldn't make the rent and they live on their own. Sometimes someone kicks them out. A lot of families live in hotels or motels," he says. "A lot of the kids we know what their situation is because the mom is enrolling them from a shelter or motel."
The high school kids present the biggest challenge. Older kids are more likely to be completely independent and try to avoid getting placed in the foster care system. Many do what they can to slip under the radar and avoid getting the district's attention.
"With teens you usually have to get to know them. They don't want to be found out, so they often keep it a secret and people will just catch on that they're moving from place to place," Pierce says. "There's a lot of different reasons why they're homeless. Often they are not welcome at home anymore. Sometimes their parents are in prison. A lot of times they've been asked to leave home because of sexual preference. A lot of deaths as well, parents that have been killed so kids are on their own. Sometimes parents are out of the country."
Some kids go on to build stable lives after high school -- one formerly homeless student, in fact, currently works with the Homeless Education Program. "It's always different. For some we get to know them, try and get them into a shelter or foster care program where they can get some help. A lot of them go on to college, and do very well."
Yet in most cases, schools must take it one day at time where these kids are concerned. Kids that are identified as homeless receive assistance from school counselors and community liaisons. The students are often given school clothes, supplies, hygiene items, and food, and can utilize Drop-In center services, where counselors can get a better understanding of their situations.
"Once the counselor or community liaison knows they're in a bad situation, we just help them out with school needs, what they need to attend school on a day to day basis," says Pierce. "For the campus staff, as long as the kids are safe and have a safe place to go that night, that's the most important issue."