VERGENNES — The first day of class can be daunting for any child.
But integrating into a new school can be even tougher for a child without a home — a phenomenon on the rise throughout the county, state and nation.
The most recent statewide figures show there were 1,042 homeless children and youths enrolled in Vermont public schools during the 2009-2010 academic year. That was up from 838 students in 2006-2007.
Locally, the Addison Central, Addison Northeast and Addison Northwest supervisory union reported serving a combined total of 24 homeless students during the 2010-2011 academic year, according to Mike Mulcahy, director of the Vermont Department of Education’s “Education for Homeless Children and Youth” program.
Those numbers likely undercount the scope of the problem this year due to displacement of families through Tropical Storm Irene and recognition that some families undoubtedly choose not to identify themselves as homeless, Mulcahy noted.
Nationally, more than 1.6 million children, or one in 45, are homeless annually in America, according to a report released this week by the National Center on Family Homelessness. This represents an increase of 38 percent during the years affected by the economic recession (2007 to 2010).
As a result, more families are finding themselves seeking out shelters on a lengthy quest to lay down new roots. It’s a quest that is taking the children of some homeless families from school district to school district, interrupting educational continuity. In other cases, it is resulting in lengthy bus or car rides for kids who elect to exercise their federally guaranteed right to remain enrolled in their school of origin even if they move into a different school district after ending their homelessness.
FACE BEHIND THE NUMBERS
April Fredette and her four children had been in temporary housing — motel rooms or bunking with relatives — for much of the summer and fall before ending up at the John W. Graham Emergency Homeless Shelter in Vergennes last month.
She said she and her children had to leave their last permanent home, in Chittenden County, several years ago due to domestic violence issues. They landed at Fredette’s parents’ house in Ferrisburgh until they were no longer able to accommodate the family.
“It got to a point where my parents’ house just wasn’t big enough,” Fredette said. “They got to a point where they said, ‘You guys just have to go.’”
All of this has made for a lot of upheaval for Fredette and her children. Her oldest daughter, Lindsey, now 16, attended elementary schools in Hinesburg, Vergennes and Ferrisburgh within the space of two years. Those moves were based on a rapid shift in housing situations for the family within a short period of time.
Daughter Sara Jo, 13 is currently attending Middlebury Union Middle School after having attended Vergennes Union Middle School last year.
Lindsey and Sara Jo have adapted to the constant transitions, but Fredette felt she needed more continuity for her youngest children, son C.J., age 6 and daughter Betty, 11. So when the family found itself temporarily housed in Brandon at the beginning of this academic year, C.J. and Betty were nonetheless provided transportation to, and continued enrollment in, Ferrisburgh Central School some 35 miles away.
That continuity was guaranteed through provisions of the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act, which allows children of homeless families the right to remain in their school of origin if they are displaced to another district as a result of a temporary housing situation. Those costs are shared by the school of origin and the district in which the family is being temporarily housed.
“It was nice, because we were freaking out about how we were going to get them to school,” Fredette said.
Ferrisburgh has continued to send a bus to collect the Fredette children since the family’s move into the John Graham Shelter in Vergennes. Staying at the Ferrisburgh school meant getting up earlier and getting home later, but Fredette said it was worth it to ensure the youngest children keep the same teachers and friends.
Lindsey, meanwhile, continues to roll with the punches. She has elected to attend Vergennes Union High School while at the shelter, and also takes classes at the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center. She is earning excellent grades in spite of the geographic upheaval.
“She is going to visit Washington, D.C., because of her straight-A grades and has kept a real level head through all of this — and she is the oldest and has been through all of it and remembers all of it,” Fredette said.
Ultimately, the family hopes to land a place of its own — but they know it won’t be easy. There is a well-documented lack of affordable housing in the state. Fredette, coming off five major surgeries for health problems, said she is has been unable to land and keep a job. Her current husband is an auto mechanic, but has been unable to find a job in the field for almost a year.
“We have been unable to get a vehicle,” Fredette said, “so unless you are lucky enough to find (a job) on the bus route, your chances are slim to nil without a vehicle.”
For now, the family is grateful to have temporary housing at the shelter and is looking forward to landing more permanent accommodations as soon as possible.
“One thing I take from this is, ‘You never know,’” Fredette said. “You could be from any walk of life, and end up here the next day. You never know.”
Fredette is pleased with the care her family has received while at the John Graham Shelter. That assistance has focused not only on landing the family some permanent housing, but assisting them in accessing other support services and employment counseling.
“I wouldn’t want to be homeless in any other county,” Fredette said.
She is reigned to the fact that some of her children might need to be uprooted at least one more time from their current schools once the family finds permanent housing.
“It will be a tough transition,” she said.
Elizabeth Ready is executive director of the John Graham Shelter. She acknowledged the Fredettes’ plight and noted it is unfortunately not unique. The shelter has served 23 families with 37 children during the past six months. Several of those families emerged from campgrounds, “sofa-surfing” or other stop-gap housing situations and needed someplace warmer to stay as the weather got colder.
Most of those families have gone on to permanent housing, according to Ready.
The shelter includes eight rooms for homeless individuals and families. As is usually the case, all are currently full. The shelter also owns and manages a combine total of eight units of transitional housing in Vergennes and Bristol.
Ready and her staff routinely come in contact with families with children who suddenly find themselves geographically uprooted from their home school district.
“I didn’t fully understand the impact that homelessness has in children,” Ready said, noting many kids are reluctant to attend school because they are so wrapped up in the turmoil within their household.
“When they start to go to school, it’s very traumatic,” she said. “We are likely to see more absenteeism, kids feeling disaffected.”
Ready recalled two children who spent time at the shelter last year who were great athletes. Shelter staff encouraged them to attend Vergennes Union High School and join the soccer team. The shelter was able to provide them both with soccer shoes, thanks to donations. The two children ended up attending VUHS, playing soccer and winning a lot of fans.
Not all stories end that happily, however.
“It’s tough,” Ready said. “For every one that will participate in cheerleading or a team sport, another kid won’t, because they aren’t sure if they are going to be there for the games.”
She noted the shelter has received families originally from Burlington and has seen those children bused from Vergennes to Burlington schools, per the McKinney-Vento Act.
Still, Ready credited Addison County schools with doing “a fantastic job” welcoming homeless children and making them feel like part of the community. The shelter, in turn, gives the students good space in which to study. Middlebury College students are often available to mentor youths at the shelter and read to the younger children.
“People can pick up some good habits here,” Ready said.
Since the shelter is located in Vergennes, it is often that VUHS and Vergennes Union Elementary School accommodate homeless students and interact with them.
Lee Shorey is a special educator at VUHS and coordinator of the school’s resource response center. She and other school officials work with homeless students who transition in and out of VUHS as their circumstances dictate. Shorey said the VUHS student body also greatly supports peers at the shelter, sending treats up on holidays and going to the shelter to help homeless families in any way they can.
One of those helpers has been Mary Langworthy, now a VUHS junior. As a freshman, Langworthy volunteered at the shelter for three hours a week, taking young children on field trips around town and to local playgrounds. This gave the children’s parents some respite while allowing the kids some time to play.
The experience also provided Langworthy with a lot of food for thought.
“It became apparent how prevalent homelessness is,” Langworthy said. “It is a lot closer to home than a lot of people realize.”
VUES Principal Sandy Bassett said the goal, when a homeless child moves into the shelter, is to get the child enrolled in school as soon as possible.
“Usually, it takes a couple of days,” he said, noting the time it takes to share information between the student’s school of origin and to assemble the services and education plan it will take for the child to be successful at VUES.
Fortunately, homeless students who enroll at VUES have tended to stick around for a while. A lot of that is due to the fact that there is no longer a strict deadline for families to leave the shelter, and the transitional housing allows families to extend their stays in the area.
Bassett said VUES each year tends to serve “a handful” of homeless children who find themselves in the shelter with their families. These can be children that have special needs and emotional issues brought on, in part, by their homelessness.
“We try to take the best care we can of any child who comes through the door,” Bassett said. “The children are the innocents, the victims of these circumstances.”
Some of the children find their way to area child care programs, such as those offered by the Mary Johnson Children’s Center.
“We desperately try to find these kids,” said Anne Gleason, coordinator of school-age programs for Mary Johnson. She noted that some parents are simply not familiar enough with the human services network to seek out the services to which they are entitled.
Donna Bailey, co-director of the Addison County Parent-Child Center, agreed.
“When homeless parents are not aware of the law, they scatter and run,” said Bailey, who works with many parents of young children. “They go from school district to school district.”
Gleason said the number of homeless children being served in Mary Johnson programs is on the rise.
“We have five school-age programs (in Middlebury, Vergennes, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro) and some children end up in three of those programs by the end of the school year,” Gleason said, noting the transient nature of some homeless families.
“These are tough times,” she added.
“Diane” is no stranger to tough times. She is a young mother using a pseudonym for this article. Diane found herself and her daughter homeless in July after her marriage ended. As if that weren’t challenging enough, she is still recovering from a brain tumor operation performed less than a year ago.
Diane was able to move pretty quickly into a temporary apartment in Bristol. There, she has enrolled her daughter into kindergarten.
“The first month, she didn’t talk to anyone in the classroom,” Diane said. “Now she has started to come around.
“Things are definitely looking up,” she said.
The National Center on Family Homelessness report has identified Vermont as tops among all 50 states in battling homelessness among children.
But even the best of programs can’t always convince older students to remain in school once their family has become homeless. Joshua Schupp-Star is coordinator of the Counseling Service of Addison County’s Youth in Transition program. He routinely works with older teens, some of whom have suddenly found themselves homeless.
“Dropping out is the conclusion some young adults come to, and that’s unfortunate,” Schupp-Star said.
He pointed out that schools provide homeless youth a dose of continuity and predictability that has been lost in their family lives. Without it, they may face even more serious problems.
“(Homelessness) can be completely overwhelming for a young person,” he said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]