Home Award Winning Articles Pencils, Books, and No Home: Alaska’s Homeless Students Number In the Thousands

Pencils, Books, and No Home: Alaska’s Homeless Students Number In the Thousands

Original photo by Derek Bruff, Creative Commons Licensing.
Original photo by Derek Bruff, Creative Commons Licensing.

Community Event

If you are interested in learning more about homeless youth:

Friday, November 14th, Covenant House Alaska will present a “One Course Discourse” at Bear Tooth Theaterpub, a community conversation on the topic of youth homelessness. The event is free and intends to engage community members in advocacy for homeless youth.

Alaska schools had over 3,900 homeless students enrolled during 2012-2013 school year, ranging from preschool to grade 12, according to the State Department of Education and Early Development. This is how the numbers break down by age group:

*Include Mat-Su, total is 258. **“Mat-Su has by far had the largest growth in homelssness,” said Streeter.
*Include Mat-Su, total is 258.
**“Mat-Su has by far had the largest growth in homelssness,” said Streeter.

Last month, Kay Streeter, Homeless Program Manager for the State Dept of Early Education and Development, outlined the demographics of the homeless student population during a meeting of the Alaska Council on the Homeless at the annual conference for the Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness in Juneau. Streeter reminded her audience these numbers represent enrolled students and exclude some youth, including those who have dropped out of school, and kindergarteners who are not required to be enrolled. Therefore, while these are precise numbers, they may still be an under-representation of how many housing-insecure children there are in Alaska.

“What struck me was the number of unsheltered,” said Streeter.

“Unsheltered” means just about what you would expect — students living in cars, abandoned buildings or camping outside. In fact, 358 (or, 9 percent) of homeless students in Alaska are classified as unsheltered.

The most common kind of student homelessness is referred to as “doubled up” — staying as a guest in housing that isn’t their own, which includes “couch surfing.” The noteable majority, 2,240 (or, 57 percent) students are “doubled up.” Around 25 percent stay in shelters, and another 9 percent stay primarily in hotels or motels.

There are multiple definitions of homelessness, some broad, some narrow. The Department of Education uses the McKinney-Vento Act definition which applies to youth who are either unsheltered, or without reliable shelter. The 1990 amendment to McKinney-Vento is a piece of Federal legislation that mandates the obligations of states and local educational agencies in assuring the access of homeless children and youth to public education.
History of McKinney-Vento: http://www.nationalhomeless.org/publications/facts/McKinney.pdf
For the details of how Alaska applies McKinney-Vento in schools, visit: http://www2.ed.gov/programs/homeless/guidance.pdf 

One in five homeless students in Alaska is classified as disabled. In all the largest school districts — Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, and Mat-Su — that rate is closer to one in four (between 26.26 percent and 30.82 percent).

The McKinney-Vento legislation that created her position and results in these yearly counts, Streeter said, is about schools stepping up to provide some stability for students who may have instability in many other parts of their life. “Usually it’s not just their housing that’s at issue,” said Streeter, adding:

All the uncertainty of where they’re going to sleep, what tomorrow will bring, what they’re going to eat. Usually kids are not immune to the worries of their parents. Thirty percent of the homeless population is typically a single family, single woman with two kids. Thirty percent are families. The typical family is a mom with two kids.

Stability is not just a matter of personal wellbeing for the student, said Streeter, but their academic career as well. “With a school change, every time a child transitions from one home to another they lose between four to six months of academic progress. We try to keep kids in their school of origin, the place they were living at the time they became homeless. Then that transition period is much reduced.” Intervening in students homelessness is important, she said, because “If they don’t stay in school they become our future homeless.”

Homelessness is often characterized as an urban issue, said Streeter, and while the numbers of homeless students in last year’s count are high in Alaska’s urban areas, she councils keeping an eye out for complexity. “I think in a lot of ways it’s just under-counted in rural areas or remote areas. It’s not that it doesn’t exist, it’s just a little it harder to find…. Most people think if ‘We don’t have any shelters in our area, and nobody’s out sleeping on our streets…’”

Students do not often come forward to authorities and articulate their needs, said Streeter. “A lot of times, students [who] are homeless in villages and smaller towns in Alaska don’t see themselves as homeless because they’re doubled up. And they don’t want to see themselves that way. Especially with our unaccompanied youth; they want to fit in with their peers.”

One in five homeless students are “unaccompanied youth,” referring to students under 18 who have no adult guardian. “There’s still a lot of stigma attatched to that term.”

Data was one of the themes of this year’s Housing and Homelessness conference. Accurate counts are essential to making progress, said Streeter. Though yearly staff turn-over, minimal funding and changing standards for statewide counts have made tracking Alaska’s homeless student population difficult, she sees some hope for the future. “It’s hard to compare one year to the next because the methodology is different. But from 2008 onward we’ve done the same thing… I think that reflects a recognition from the federal government that population doesn’t have a lot of resources targets at it. So they want better data.”

Outside Links for More Information

Point-In-Time youth count 2013: http://www.alaskahousing-homeless.org/point-time-pit-homeless-count-2013
Housing Wage Calculator: http://nlihc.org/library/wagecalc
Anchorage Community Resource List: http://www.muni.org/Departments/health/DirectServices/documents/resourcelist08.pdf
CSS Homeless Family Services: http://www.cssalaska.org/html/programs/homeless-family-services.php