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Columbia Missourian

Tally of Springfield homeless students grows

By CLAUDETTE RILEY/Springfield News-Leader
February 14, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CST

SPRINGFIELD — Seven months into a second stay at the Missouri Hotel, 8-year-old Evan White has a simple hope for his next home.

"I want a regular one," he said.

The second-grader said "it's embarrassing" to talk about living with another family, the weeks spent bouncing between friends' couches and ending up in a homeless shelter. He wants a room of his own, a quiet place to do homework and a place where he is proud to invite friends over to play, the Springfield News-Leader reports.

"I try to tell him that material things don't matter. He doesn't get everything he wants, nowhere near. He does get discouraged. He doesn't come out and say it, but I can see how it affects him," said Stephanie Applegate, Evan's mother. "It's hard on him. He remembers us having our homes."

At the end of last school year, Springfield Public Schools' tally of homeless students climbed to more than 700 for the first time.

That's 727 children and teens who were doubled up with another family or sleeping in a shelter, weekly motel, tent or car.

The 2012-13 tally shattered all of Springfield's previous homeless student records. It was also nearly double the number identified in 2009-10, when 378 were reported.

"The raw numbers are high," said Lawrence Anderson, homeless liaison for the 25,000-student district. "They're staggering, when you think about it."

Springfield's growth in homeless students mirrors a steady increase in state and national numbers. A little more than 2 percent of all Missouri public school students are classified as homeless, but the local numbers are slightly higher.

Students who are homeless are among the most at-risk for lagging behind their peers academically and dropping out.

Anderson said the year-end tally provides a stark reminder how many families are struggling to make ends meet. Last year, 54.4 percent of all district students qualified for free or reduced-price meals — a national measure of poverty — and the updated rate for this year, which is expected to be higher, will be released in March.

"It just gives you a great indication of the need," he said.

Of the 727 identified last year, 439 were in elementary schools, 144 in middle schools and 144 in high schools. Nearly half were doubled up with other families, followed by shelters, motels and those without an address.

This school year is on track to eclipse last year's record-setting count. As of late January, 688 homeless children and teens had been identified throughout the fall and winter and nearly all were still enrolled.

More than half of the identified students were in the elementary grades, which means the overall number could be even higher. District officials worry that middle and high school students are less forthcoming about their living situations.

Anderson said of the 612 still enrolled as of last week, 318 were living with another family, 130 were in motels, 87 in shelters, 72 doubled up with another family and five were "unsheltered."

"We don't know for sure where they're at," he said.

Under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, students who lack a "fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence" are considered homeless and are automatically eligible for extra services. They can immediately enroll, receive free school meals and request busing to stay in their original school even if they move across town.

Over the summer, Megan McNail and her fiancé, Tony Torres, moved into the Salvation Army's Family Enrichment Center, a transitional housing program for homeless families and single women. They have a son, Axton, who is now 1.

McNail spent middle and high school moving around, landing in three states and multiple cities. Her high school years were spent bouncing between Springfield and Republic and experiencing bouts of homelessness.

"It was hard because you couldn't actually have friends. I didn't actually do activities," she said.

Yet, McNail considers school a "safe haven" and she remembers leaving home early to get there to be around the teachers and other kids her age.

"The teachers, they could tell something was wrong," said McNail, who went to Springfield's Parkview High School before graduating from Republic High in 2011. "I had this teacher at Parkview, she could tell something was going on. She'd send me cards at home and tell me she missed me and wanted me back in class."

Children who experience extreme poverty and homelessness are at a greater risk of not graduating high school.

"That was my fear, that I wouldn't finish," she said. "But that was my education, that was my way out. I was determined to finish high school."

McNail was terrified when she became pregnant and then homeless. She is now enrolled in an early childhood education program at Ozarks Technical Community College and has the goal of achieving stability by the time her son is in preschool.

"I want to tell him the story one day. I don't want to hide anything from him," she said of struggling. "I want him to know we tried hard."

Applegate also wants more for her children.

The first time she moved her family into the Missouri Hotel, her son Evan was in first grade and she was pregnant with daughter Kenslie Barnett, who was born nine months ago. They moved out, but when her fiancé lost his job and their living arrangement with another family fell through, they returned to the shelter.

Applegate, who didn't experience homelessness growing up, worried about her son spending the school year at the shelter.

"I just want them to be happy about their childhood," he said. "School is the No. 1 priority for all of us."

She hopes that stability and the possibility of getting a place of their own soon, as part of a two-year transitional program, will brighten the futures of her children.

"I feel really discouraged and I feel really ashamed," said Applegate, a 2003 Parkview High graduate. "I just feel like I haven't given my child the same childhood I had."

Applegate said living in one room at the homeless shelter means it's rarely quiet when Evan is trying to read or do homework. She also worries about how much his sister, who cries when she's hungry or needs changed, keeps him up at night.

"I just take it one day at a time," she said. "Mostly, I just hope for better."