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Student Homelessness Spikes In Rural And Urban Kansas City Metro

Cody Newill

New figures from the U.S. Department of Education show that homelessness among American students has sky-rocketed by 58 percent in the past five years.

While the problem is at its worst in urban school districts the government data reveals that, for the first time, rural and suburban school districts are dealing with homelessness on a large scale. 

There are now an estimated 1.3 million homeless students in this country.

In the Kansas City Public Schools the number of homeless students has gone from 887 in 2008 to 1,315 last year, according to data from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. That is a 48 percent increase.

In the Kansas City, Kan., district the number of homeless students has gone from 419 in 2008 to 1,056 last year, according to the Kansas Department of Education.

There was a dramatic increase in the number of homeless students in the St. Louis City district in the last five years. In 2008 the district reported 1754 homeless students to the state. Last year, that number was 4582, an increase of 161 percent.

The federal government defines student homelessness as anyone who lives in a shelter or on the streets or any student who might be forced to live with another family member because they lost their home.

While any increase in homeless students is awful, Kansas City school district officials say they are used to helping homeless students and their families.

"We operate in kind of a crisis mode. We want to make sure that we can meet the needs immediately of those individuals who say, hey, I really don’t have a place to stay tonight," says Melissa Douglas who runs the Office of Students in Transition.

The Great Recession in 2008, Douglas says, is 100 percent to blame for the current explosion of homeless students.

Click on the school icons to reveal homeless student populations over the last five years:

Even though the economy is adding about 200,000 jobs a month and GDP is growing, the problem of homeless students is getting worse. 

Educators don’t know why this lag exists, but it does, and they have to deal with it.

While the problem is bad in urban districts, the real trouble is in rural schools. And we don’t have to go far to find it.

The Gardner-Edgerton School District in south Johnson County is quickly becoming more suburban but still serves a large rural population. In 2008, Gardner-Edgerton reported  just 32 homeless students to the state.

Since then, the number has gotten as high as 123 and last year it reported 113 homeless students.

The rapid rise in homelessness caught the district by surprise, according to Dr. Judy Martin, director of special services.

"It (was) a surprise to our board. It's a surprise to our community but it's also a reality," she says.

And while the number of homeless students increases, says Martin, the size of her staff has stayed the same.

"Our current staff have absorbed the population that continues to come through our doors," she says. 

This rise in student homelessness is not just Gardner. Most rural and suburban districts have seen a big spike in homelessness as well.

Since 2008, homelessness in the Olathe School District is up 151 percent.

Fort Osage, Mo., is up 274 percent.

And while Kearney, Mo., only reports 15 homeless students, five years ago it had just three.

What makes it so much harder in these places, says Martin, is there’s just not that many services: No health clinics, little if any bus service, no shelters.

"A lot of them, if they have a car, they will sleep in the back seat of their car. If they have vans they will sleep in their vans. During the summer months or when the weather is nicer they will sleep in parks, on park benches," says Martin. 

"We don't have any shelters. You know, the Gardner or Edgerton communities don't have any shelters to house families, to house children," she says.

So rural districts need lots of help.

In Gardner-Edgerton that has mostly fallen to churches.

"It kind of dropped on us like a ton of bricks, would probably be the best way to say that," says Pastor Dan Newberg from the Gardner Church of the Nazarene.

"What we have seen is a remarkable increase in the number of students that are served," he says.

Four years ago, Newberg's church started filling backpacks with food so about 60 students at one school could have something to eat on weekends.

Now, with the help of Harvesters, the big food bank in Kansas City, they fill backpacks for 270 students in five elementary schools.

In addition, once a month a big truck from Harvesters pulls up to the church and distributes perishable items like dairy, bread and fresh fruit to people who line up around the block hours before the truck arrives.

"Sometimes we get a lot of bread items, sometimes we get hardly any. Fresh foods that’s getting to the place that maybe there’s a little spoil in it and the stores can’t sell it but there’s still a lot of good food there," says Melvin Essex a church volunteer.

But, Newberg says, there’s still plenty of hungry kids.

"The need for more backpacks, for more food is already there. It’s not a question of will it become greater, I think the need is already there," he says.

Newberg calls student homelessness a hidden problem in Johnson County.

"It's kind of a secret problem. If you just ignore it, if you don't look at it, it will go away. But it's not going away. It's getting worse," he says.

Statewide in Kansas and Missouri student homelessness has about doubled in the last five years. And as districts struggle with uncertain budgets, they don’t expect this problem to get any better. This level of homelessness, some educators fear, may just be the new normal.

"I don't think it will go down. It could become a little bit more stable, probably, but not go down," says Melissa Douglas from Kansas City Public Schools.

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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