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A report released Wednesday calls for a significant overhaul of state programs to address Texas’ growing number of homeless students.
The report by two youth advocacy nonprofits recommends establishing a statewide initiative led by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services and the Department of Housing and Community Affairs to include dedicated funding streams to support homeless students, which the report said numbered 113,000 statewide during the 2014-15 school year.
The number of homeless students increased 12 percent from the previous year, the report said. Under the federal definition of homelessness, that includes children who are staying in transitional housing, shelters, temporary residences, sleeping in a car, or on the streets.
“There is no state funding for youth who are homeless,” said Gabriella McDonald, one of the report’s authors and pro bono and new projects director for Texas Appleseed. “There is for youth, there is for homeless, but not homeless youth. This is a housing and child welfare issue.”
The report was produced and funded by the Texas Network of Youth Services (TNOYS), an advocacy organization that works to improve and support services for at-risk youth, and Texas Appleseed, a social and economic justice nonprofit. It includes interviews with 113 youth who have experienced homelessness, policy makers, and foster care system representatives. McDonald told the Rivard Report that researchers wanted to look at the issue of homelessness comprehensively.
“Without talking to stakeholders, law enforcement, and youth, we wouldn’t have been able to look at the issue in the same way,” McDonald said. “No single system exists for working with homeless youth [in Texas, but] there is a lot of work being done at the community level to figure out how to best serve this population.”
In San Antonio alone, 2,920 homeless students were enrolled in the San Antonio Independent School District during 2014-15 – the second highest count of homeless students in the state and the second highest count of unaccompanied homeless students within a district that school year.
Harlandale ISD documented 394 homeless youth enrolled in district schools, South San Antonio ISD reported 318, and Edgewood ISD reported 640. Lackland ISD and Fort Sam Houston ISD are among the 21 districts in San Antonio who reported no homeless youth enrolled during the 2014-2015 school year, according to according to data collected by local education agencies and reported to the Texas Education Agency. However, researchers say that likely is due to lack of reporting.
A central finding of the study is that the lack of a cohesive policy and funding approach to address student homelessness often results in homeless youth getting involved with the criminal justice system, struggling with physical and mental health challenges, and having difficulty in school.
TNOYS Executive Director Christine Gendron said the study is the first of its kind and the most comprehensive to date, showing “how state systems are contributing to the problem of homelessness.”
“Youth aren’t homeless because they can’t find an apartment,” McDonald said. “They are homeless because something has gone awry at home.”
A 2016 report on youth homelessness in Texas found that 19 percent of youth reported family problems led to their homelessness; another 15 percent reported having been kicked out by family. Almost 8 percent reported having run away from home and another 8 percent reported having been abandoned by a parent.
Miranda Vasquez is a 20-year-old participating in the TurningPoint transitional living program with Roy Maas Youth Alternatives (RMYA), which assists youth who age out of foster care or who grew up in abusive or neglectful homes to gain skills to live independently.
Vasquez recalled that during her senior in high school, she was kicked out of her father’s house and found herself living on the streets. She had previous experiences in foster care and had no desire to return. During a night on the streets, police found Vasquez and returned her to her father’s house; her father agreed to let her remain at his residence until graduation.
“The last week of school before graduation, I looked up shelters and places I could go,” said Vasquez, who used the computers at school to complete her research. “Three days after graduating from high school, I came here.”
With the help of her Turning Point caseworker, Vasquez found a job her second day in the program and soon learned how to budget and pay rent, which is $300 a month in the program. Caseworkers are helping her shop for her first apartment.
Turning Point is supported through federal grants, but RMYA Chief Program Officer Julie Strentzch said the funding “doesn’t even pay for half of what it costs to care for this particular population.” Because there are so few transitional living centers for at-risk youth over the age of 18 in Texas, waiting lists are common.
In 2016, nearly 300 homeless youth in Houston were on a waiting list for housing assistance; in Dallas, agencies turned away roughly 100 homeless youth seeking services because they didn’t have the funding needed to serve them, according to TNOYS.
“When we don’t direct funds to help this population be successful, these are people who will end up needing assistance for a lifetime,” Strentzch said. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to spend the money now to help them be responsible members of society, as opposed to telling them they are an adult and need to figure it out?”
For Vasquez, her interaction with the police could have led to her being detained as a runaway had she not remained with her father. According to the study data, youth who experience homelessness are more likely to enter into the criminal justice system for crimes such as curfew violations and panhandling.
Policy recommendations made in the report to address homeless youth in the criminal justice system include better training for law enforcement so that they are better equipped to address a youth’s physical and emotional safety, and moving runaway cases out of the juvenile justice system.
Lack of support can lead homeless youth to increased potential for physical and behavioral health concerns. Nearly 47 percent of homeless youth had experienced alcohol abuse or addiction, the report found, and many identified health-related problems as a cause of their homelessness.
Each year in Texas, at least 1,000 students who have experienced homelessness repeat a grade, and 1,400 drop out of school, the report said.
Often, homeless students are reluctant to reach out to school personnel for support or help, Strentzch said.
“It’s difficult to admit that you may not have it all together, and it’s not something we necessarily teach in our culture,” she said. “In a population of kids who already feel less than, [it is] much harder.”