In the last decade, the number of homeless students in Missouri has doubled in size. And in rural school districts the problem is well-hidden, leaving many schools to pick up the slack. In the first of a series “Living in the Shadows”, we look at how one of the largest school districts in southeast Missouri is dealing with the spike of homeless kids.
It’s the lunchtime rush at Cape Central High School as a sea of students are bobbing and weaving through the crowded and noisy hallways. They’re heading toward the melting pot where cliché groups are formed--the cafeteria.
There are the jocks, the nerds, the popular kids and everyone else in between. But you won’t see this elusive group--homeless youth. They’re a needle in a haystack. Business teacher, Theresa Taylor at Cape Central High School said there is one simple reason for that.
“The kids are in no big hurry to tell you,” Taylor said.
Many of these kids stay quiet, largely due to teenage rebellion and the fear someone will rat them out. When Taylor does find out it’s usually from a worried friend.
“Students will come up and say, 'did you know so and so got kicked out of the house?,’” Taylor said. “‘Did you know that so and so is living on their friends couch,' which is common.”
Many of these teens are working 40 hours a week, sleeping in their cars, or crashing at a friend’s house. They go to school the next day as if nothing’s going on.
“It's really sad, you know to look at a kid that's 16, 17, 18 years old and they slept on the street last night,” Taylor said.
Recently, one of her students was homeless because her mom kicked her out. The student told Taylor she felt disgusting, because she couldn’t shower or wash her hair.
“And we're supposed to try and teach them,” Taylor said. “And if you know that ahead of time you can be a little bit more considerate. You know, I gave her scented hand lotion, [be]cause I thought at least that would help.”
In that case things got worked out, but sometimes it can take an emotional toll on Taylor. It’s exhausting.
“We remember the kids,” Taylor said. “We remember the kids and their struggle. We worry about where their struggle is [going to] go.”
The numbers are growing. Nearly 8 years ago, Jackson R-II school district had zero identifiable homeless students, while Cape Girardeau Public school district had 22. Last year those numbers surged to 235 for Jackson R-II school district and 192 for Cape Girardeau Public school district.
"I tell my students that quite often about you don't know who's walking beside you in the halls,” Taylor said. “You don't know if that kid is homeless.”
Donna Cash is the state Homeless Education coordinator for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Cash said these numbers don’t show the true extent of the problem, because many kids don’t see themselves as homeless.
“Those students are what we refer to as doubled up,” Cash said. “So, they're living with other family members or friends of the family. So, often times they don't identify themselves as homeless, because they don't believe they're homeless. They think that they have a roof over their head, and therefore they’re not homeless.”
Under federal law, students without a “fixed, regular and adequate” place to stay for the night are considered homeless. This law helps students maintain a path to academic success when life’s situational challenges create obstacles, hindering students from succeeding in the classroom.
“If there [are] younger siblings at home and a family hasn’t got a babysitter,” Cash said. “So, that older teen or older student is staying home watching the younger children so mom and dad can go out and try to find jobs. The school district would help that family then find daycare, so that the other student could go to school.”
Schools are trying different ways of fixing a well-hidden problem. Teachers donate clothes and money, and Cape Central High School social worker Carolyn Thomas reaches out to local agencies, pastors and banks for help. She says the key is building relationships with parents when a student is on the verge of being homeless.
“Sometimes it's getting resources for mental health services, counseling and family therapy,” Thomas said. “Sometimes it's keeping a family together and keeping that home intact.”
But when that’s not an option for students, business teacher Theresa Taylor said education is the best remedy. She knows, because she has seen these same kids transform into full functioning young adults.
“They did make it,” Taylor said. “They've got a good job. They got their education. They're on their feet. And for them to come back and say things like, 'thank you because you cared. And somedays just the fact that somebody cared was important.’”
To Taylor, caring can bring an invisible problem into the light, and make a huge difference in a student’s life.