School officials work to help students experiencing homelessness in Kent County
(KENT COUNTY, Mich.) Experiencing homelessness can be stressful for anyone, but for students there is an added layer of stress.
"Everyday we have thousands of kids that are experiencing homelessness and they're still trying to come to school, they're still trying to have friends, they're still trying to be kids," said Casey Gordon, the Supervisor of Special Populations for the Kent Intermediate School District (Kent ISD).
Gordon says Kent ISD has identified more than 2,100 homeless students in the last year.
However, Gordon acknowledges that that number is likely an undercount.
"Many students and families don't want to say that they're experiencing homelessness," said Gordon. "Sometimes they are embarrassed about the stigma of it. About 75% of all of our kids that we identify are doubled up."
To help students and families in Kent County that are experiencing homelessness, each district has a special liaison.
Sarah Weir works as the Student Services Liaison for the Kentwood School District.
"A lot of times the families will confide in the teacher or someone in the front office and then they know how to get ahold of me and so then we go from there," said Weir.
Funding from the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act helps with transportation as well as school related activities.
"This time of year, I'm buying a lot of track shoes, a lot of tennis shoes, a lot of spikes, that kinda thing for any student who qualifies as homeless that wants to be on a sport and it covers fine arts too," said Weir. So if I had a student that needed their band instrument paid for."
In addition to the stress and trauma of not having a stable home, Gordon and Weir say students experiencing homelessness need seasonal clothing, access to laundry facilities, and technology to keep up with their classes.
"We've seen increased needs for winter attire because of students living in cars," said Gordon. "It gets cold in Michigan in the winter. We've seen an increase in needs for things like car chargers for laptops for school issued devices and tablets so that students can do their homework."
Weir says long-term affordable housing and livable wages are crucial to keeping families housed.
"I've been in this role for about seven years and I haven't seen anything get better. It's continued to be a huge struggle," said Weir. "The price of apartments in Kentwood continues to go up. What I've seen more recently is landlords breaking a lease because they can bring in someone new at a higher rate and that's been the hardest part for our families."
Families who can't afford a permanent place to live are forced to pay hundreds of dollars a week for hotels.
With summer on the horizon, the rates of family homelessness will likely increase.
Kent ISD offers what assistance they can during those difficult summer months.
"We try and make sure that our summer food programs are up and running," said Gordon. We try and keep our vulnerable students in summer programs if it's at all possible so that they get an extra academic boost."
Gordon says family homelessness affects both rural and urban parts of the county and that community support is needed.
"We need the community to really rally around these students and these families and try and help figure out ways to stabilize them," said Gordon.
If you would like to help students in your district experiencing homelessness, you can reach out to the district to be put in contact with the liaison that helps families and students experiencing homelessness.
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