Number of homeless children on the rise in Athens, across Ohio

The number of homeless students attending Ohio public schools climbed to 21,000 during the 2010-11 school year, according to a report by the Ohio Department of Education, an increase of more than 2,000 students from the previous school year.

As homelessness rates in Ohio and Athens County continue to climb, particularly among school-age children, its traditional criteria no longer apply, said Patrick Gallaway, spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Education.

“It is important to note that the term ‘homeless’ may mean many things. It is not always someone living without any type of shelter. The numbers can include families who may be doubled up with another family, or living in a motel, hotel or shelter,” Gallaway said.

In Athens County, children under 18 years old have a poverty rate of 29.6 percent, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates for 2006–10. The percentage climbs to 39.1 percent for related children under 5 years old.

Homelessness is no more of a problem in urban areas than it is in more rural ones such as Athens County, said Nick Claussen, spokesperson for Athens County Job and Family Services.

“Although we don’t always see homeless kids on the streets, it is still a significant problem,” Claussen said.

Much of Athens’ impoverished population is forced to pack two or three families into a single household, or live in campers or trailers, Claussen said, adding that in 2011, Good Works, which provides assistance to the homeless, was forced to turn away 138 people, including 62 children, due to a lack of space.

The situation is especially hard on school-age children and youth, whose only source of stability oftentimes comes from the school they attend daily, sometimes leaving them to wonder where they are going to sleep that night.

For this reason, Gallaway stressed the importance of the local districts’ duty to identify and report homeless youth in public schools. Once the district has identified its homeless students, it can begin the process of aiding them, as it is required to do under Ohio’s McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

Reenacted in 2002, the act aims to provide homeless children and youth in Ohio’s public school system with resources and support, according to the Department of Education’s website.

Each district employs a liaison, whose job is to identify homeless youth and ensure that they enroll in school and receive necessary educational services. The liaison also informs parents and guardians of educational and related opportunities, their child’s educational rights and transportation services, according to the website.

In addition to addressing these practical needs, one of the liaison’s most important functions is to provide emotional support to children and their families, Gallaway said.

In this way, the district can instill a sense of normalcy to temper a homeless student’s unstable living environment.

“Educators need to be plugged in with their students,” Gallaway said.
Watching for signs such as distraction, social withdrawal and a sudden, unexplained deterioration in quality of schoolwork helps teachers pinpoint which students may be homeless and provide necessary aid.

For example, most homeless students are eligible for a free or reduced meal program. This meal can prove to be the most important part of a student’s day, as proper nutrition is integral to academic success.

In spite of the assistance available through the McKinney-Vento Act, Gallaway acknowledges that there are still families who are reticent to accept help. Some even refuse to admit that they are homeless, due to blurred criteria.

Nick Claussen listed health problems, job layoffs and the ending of marriages as causes of homelessness in Athens County. Bad choices also sometimes contribute to a family’s finding themselves in this situation.

“We still need to help people,” he said. “We’ve got to help the children.”

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