Each day, Jo Carter, the liaison specialist for homeless students in the Fort Worth Independent School District, sorts through a massive stack of forms on her desk.
The forms, which steadily increase in number each day, ask a series of questions that help to identify students in need of assistance because they are homeless. The forms are the only way the school district has of seeking these children in need, and they cannot reflect actual number of homeless children, Carter said.
And, with a sour economy and high unemployment, the number of forms and the number of students requesting help for necessities such as food, clothing and transportation has increased, she said.
Part of Carter’s job is to make sure that students within the FWISD receive these necessities, and that includes shopping for clothing for students who submit requests.
“Last year we provided about 460 students with uniforms and clothes,” Carter said. “This year we’re already almost at half that. We’re already at 200, and we’re only three months into the entire school year.”
By the time she enters her office after such a shopping trip, Carter said she usually sees eight or 10 more clothing requests waiting on her desk.
“Last year we had the hurricane, and I didn’t even do this much shopping,” she said.
This year Carter has counted about 600 forms, but in the past the forms have reached numbers between 800 and 1,200.
Otis Thornton, the homelessness coordinator for Fort Worth, said the problem in helping homeless children does not center on funding so much as it does on locating them.
He said many children considered by the U.S. Department of Education to be homeless do what is called “doubling up,” a situation that occurs when students from low-income families move in with friends and relatives.
“It’s a consequence of low-income families not having a place to stay,” Thornton said. “And it results in low-income families having to move around a lot.”
This presents just one difficulty in counting the students because it requires officials in the school district to know what families and students are living in each house, he said.
“It is often very difficult for counselors to know where the students are actually living,” Thornton said.
Carter said that in addition to doubling up, there are students sleeping in motels, emergency shelters and cars.
“This isn’t, ‘Hey can I spend the night tonight?'” Carter said. “It’s, ‘Hey, I’ve got nowhere to go and if my aunt doesn’t let me live here I’m going out on the street.’ So there’s a lot of house-hopping.”
Thornton said another problem with the forms is that they rely on the truthfulness of the people filling them out.
“Many of these students are teenagers, and at that age you are trying to conform or be cool,” Thornton said.
Steve Dutton, president of Samaritan House, a permanent supportive housing complex in Fort Worth, said many of the students are wary of filling the forms out truthfully.
“They’re dealing with a lot of issues,” Dutton said. “It’s not just being homeless, but the bias and the stigma that comes along with it.”
According to a report from the American Community Survey, the number of children living in poverty in Tarrant County is 85,536.
Thornton said this number is significant because it represents the number of children who are homeless or who are most likely to become homeless.
The idea that people are homeless primarily because of drug addiction problems or laziness is a misconception, he said.
“The poorer you are, the more likely you are to be homeless,” he said. “The primary reason for being homeless is that people can’t afford homes.”
Almost one-fourth of the homeless population in Tarrant County is children under the age of 18, Thornton said.
“Those kids typically aren’t homeless because they aren’t making enough money,” he said. “Typically those kids aren’t homeless because they are crack heads. So there’s obviously something else going on there.”
Dutton said children can become homeless as a result of several factors, including divorce, domestic violence issues and lack of ability to pay child support.
One of the leading factors this year is the economy, he said.
“The bad economy increases the number of homeless families and therefore the number of homeless children,” Dutton said. “When the economy is down, not only is it increasing the number of homeless families, but it’s decreasing the number of people who can give monetary donations.”
Carter said young children who are homeless are particularly vulnerable because of several developmental issues.
“We’ve had students from our shelters that are 5 and 6 years old who have zero knowledge of numbers,” she said. “They’re in survival mode. Mom is more worried about how we’re going to eat tonight. Education often is not a priority.”
Homeless students often fall behind both academically and socially.
“Every time you change a school it can be several weeks or months to catch up,” Carter said.
One particular eighth grader had already been enrolled in 16 different schools, she said.
“A lot of them are sleepy and hungry – they can’t concentrate,” Carter said.
In an effort to address the problems faced by homeless children, the FWISD, the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition, United Way of Tarrant County and several homeless shelters have banded together and initiated numerous programs.
Thornton said the City of Fort Worth has channeled many of these programs through the Directions Home program, which aims to “make homelessness a rare, short-term and non-recurring experience” by 2018.
“For years and years we tried to do a better job of managing homelessness,” Thornton said. “OK, let’s push it out of downtown, let’s push it out of the TCU area, so no one can see it. Now we are trying to actually fix it.”
Thornton said Directions Home, which began a year and a half ago, strives to increase supportive housing, provide service linked with accountability and coordinate homelessness prevention initiatives.
“Homeless people are more likely to die because homelessness takes an incredible toll on the human body,” Thornton said. “It’s a matter of life and death, so we want to do things that are a good investment of tax dollars and compassionate at the same time.”
One organization at the center of the plan is the Presbyterian Night Shelter.
Carter said the PNS, which is funded largely by grants through United Way of Tarrant County, houses about 100 students.
Teresa Holmes, programming manager for the women and children’s center at PNS, said the number of people served by the PNS has grown steadily since her arrival.
“I’ve been here for five years, and every year the number of people we’ve served has increased by 50 percent,” Holmes said.
The program at PNS helps children by providing them with a child advocate who is in contact with the children’s teachers, provides tutoring and oversees a structured study time among other services, she said.
In addition, Holmes said the large community of children at the center helps individuals cope socially because they realize they are not the only children who have faced homelessness.
The women and children’s center is set up so that families can graduate through two phases, which help with the assessment and placement of the families.
The first phase is aimed at stabilizing the families, and this occurs as soon as families arrive at the center.
Phase two makes the families eligible to move into semi-private housing, at which time the center starts trying to identify a permanent housing program.
“If we put them in their own apartment, and they’re just going to come back here in a year because their needs are so great, we will instead decide to place them in a shelter-plus-care housing program,” Holmes said.
Dutton, who oversees Tarrant County Samaritan House’s 66 apartments for homeless people, said there are about 80 or 90 children in his facilities.
While Samaritan House focuses primarily on previously homeless persons who are infected with HIV or AIDS, Dutton said many children “are not infected, but affected by homelessness.”
Dutton describes the children as “quiet victims.”
“They tend to be more quiet, and depressed and more afraid,” he said. “It’s a scary, scary thing for a child.”
Dutton said that in 2004 Samaritan House began to build housing for entire families.
“Nobody planned on the economy turning south, though,” he said. “So it’s a struggle.”
In order to offset the economic hardships Samaritan House has upped the campaign for volunteers, and done so successfully.
“We have three times more volunteers,” he said. “We’ve documented over 1,000 volunteers.”
Samaritan House focuses on counseling, social interaction, and showing the children a lot of love, Dutton said.
“It’s a very positive place where kids get a chance to be kids,” he said.
Funded by grants from the Mckinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, FWISD implemented the Open Doors program.
This program provides the funding for uniforms, tutoring, transportation counseling and the like for the students.
However, the FWISD lacks the manpower and the methods for finding the students.
“With the grant it’s not a money issue,” Carter said. “It’s finding the students and getting the resources to them in a timely manner.”