The number of homeless students in Austin ISD is rising sharply, according to the latest numbers released by non-profit group HousingWorks Austin.
Using district statistics, the non-profit calculated that the number of students without a permanent address in AISD was 2,642 for the 2014-15 school year. That's up 152 from 2013 - 14's figure of 2,490, and a massive leap of 612 from 2012 - 13's total of 2,030.
What makes this even more worrying is that this 30% increase over the last two years comes as AISD's enrollment has remained functionally static, and state support for homeless student programs has basically flat-lined or collapsed.
Drilling down, the numbers for where these students are sleeping makes for depressing reading:
• 2,078 living doubled up with other families
• 275 living in motels/hotels
• 271 living unaccompanied, often with friends
• 249 living in shelters
• 46 living unsheltered, in vehicles or in squats
Moreover, this study does not touch on the number of families who move regularly, chasing cheaper rents. That's incredibly disruptive to the education of students, who may find themselves in a new classroom multiple times in the same school year.
The reality of modern homelessness is that, while it's tough on anyone, there are remarkably increased strains on homeless families. Many shelters will only take single people, while others are only designed to take women and children, meaning families can sometimes be divided.
The positive news is that homeless kids are guaranteed an education. In 2004, Congress passed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act, ensuring that students did not need supportive documents like proof of a permanent address or immunization records to be enrolled. However, that cannot overcome the particular damage that homelessness causes to kids.
Some of the best indicators of academic success are access to regular food, sleep, places to study, parental support, and (increasingly) access to technology, all of which homelessness deprives them. A study by Massachusetts-based non-profit Children's Healthwatch shows that children living in overcrowded homes are more likely to suffer from food insecurity (basically, not knowing where the next meal comes from), while children who move home two or more times in 12 months are more likely to suffer poor health, and developmental delays and conditions.
AISD's efforts in this area are focused through Project Help, which attempts to level the playing field for homeless students. Trustee Ann Teich, who has also been tackling the problem of homelessness and unreliable housing through the Restore Rundberg initiative, said, "Project HELP is training AISD school registrars to be better detectives in determining which kids might be homeless and how to do that in a non-embarrassing way so that they can get with these kids and say, I think you need these services, come in and talk with us about it."
This isn't just a local problem. According to a study by UT Austin Senior Program Coordinator Vicky Dill for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development's journal Educational Leadership, there are currently 1,258,182 school age kids in America classified as homeless. Texas has seen some of the worst growth in student homelessness: between 2007-8 and 2012-13, the total number of homeless students enrolled in the state's public schools increased by 89.87%, from 53,242 to 101,088.
So what's causing this explosion in numbers in Austin ISD?
It's actually two issues. First, the basic problem of finding shelter night to night; and second, the problem of finding long-term accommodation once you are homeless.
The Housing Works study cites the increasing number of renters in the market, plus the unwillingness of landlords to accept tenants receiving U.S. Housing and Urban Development Housing Choice Vouchers, aka Section 8 support. The previous City Council passed an ordinance requiring landlords to accept Section 8 renters but was swiftly met with a legal challenge from the Austin Apartment Association. While it was upheld in federal court the ordinance is largely void thanks to a new state law, set to take effect Sept. 1, that bars cities from implementing SOI ordinances.
However, there's another factor that the report leaves out: the inability to increasing the amount of homeless support provision in Austin. Since the construction of the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless on Seventh Street in 2004, the facility has been consistently overcrowded, with no sign of additional short-term homeless shelters. Meanwhile, former AISD Trustee Cheryl Bradley was resolute in her opposition to increasing long term affordable housing at Colony Park if it meant an increase in Section 8 support recipients.
Conversely, many Austinites have been incredibly supportive of the new Community First! Village as a partial solution to Austin's growing homeless problem. However, the location, well outside of Austin city limits, has already been noted as problematic for anyone depending on public transport for a job: such housing solutions would just magnify transport issues for students. In fact, while the village has been presented as a solution to Austin's homeless problem, it's actually located in the much smaller Manor ISD, with far fewer resources than AISD.
There is progress being done on tackling homelessness, much of it a collaborative process between non-profits, county, city, and district leaders. However, HousingWorks Austin executive director Mandy De Mayo said, “Much more needs to be done to reverse the trend of ever-increasing numbers of homeless students.”
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