How surprising is it that over half of the homeless counted in the Northwest Arkansas 2015 point-in-time homeless census (PIT) are K-12 students? Over 1,200 students are without a place they can call their own on any given night throughout the year.
Every other year we do a homeless census in Washington and Benton Counties. The primary objective of that census is to get an accurate count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless adults in the region. This count provides local homeless service providers, government officials, and other non-profits a snapshot of their clientele. However, since 2007, the Community and Family Institute (CFI) has been including in that count, all K-12 students who are designated as homeless by area school homeless coordinators. This count is important to local school districts that depend on federal funds to assist these students with emergency needs like food, clothing, and case management.
There is much to be concerned about in this graphic. The rising K-12 homelessness in the last eight years, the growing problem in one of our wealthiest school districts, and the lack of targeted programming to stem the tide.
Perhaps what is more troubling about the data is that we know very little about this population. We do know that nearly 90 percent of those reported homeless in the K-12 systems across Washington and Benton Counties are doubling-up with friends and relatives. They are not on the streets, very few are in shelters, and the majority is accompanied by at least one adult.
Given this assessment, you might be tempted to say something like, “at least they have a place to stay.” While certainly it is important to their overall well-being to at least have a place to live, staying with their grandparents or aunt and cousins, or even living at a family’s friends house or apartment is nothing to get excited about and in fact, can be, in many cases, a risky environment. Research consistently shows that unstable housing can be a contributor to physical and mental health risks, academic problems, food insecurity, and other markers for poor outcomes that disrupt student success and achievement.
So what can I do?
- Start a social media conversation among your NWA friends and followers…start posting on Facebook and Twitter about this issue.
- Create momentum for change. Get your congregations, non-profit partners, and local businesses talking about student needs and looking for support.
- Organize neighborhood food drives and start stocking the shelves of your local school food pantries.
- Contact your local schools, talk to the homeless coordinator, and find out what their needs are: food, school supplies, clothing, etc.
We know that schools are buried in the job of educating their students and developing homeless prevention or intervention programs are well outside their scope and their general wheelhouse of what they can do. Many homeless coordinators are not full-time appointments and often teachers are selected to fill the role on an annual basis. Some schools are doing the best they can do to help with needs but others are either ill equipped or unprepared to meet the demands of this high-risk student population.
Despite this somewhat grim picture, there is plenty of opportunity to act!
Kevin Fitzpatrick, PhD is a professor of sociology and the Jones Chair in Community and the Director of the Community and Family Institute at the University of Arkansas. To find out more about what Dr. Fitzpatrick and the CFI are doing in this region visit cfi.uark.edu.