122 Children at Sullivan Middle School are Homeless
Saturday, March 17, 2012
According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Worcester has the highest number of homeless students, and Dr. Arthur F. Sullivan Middle School, located at 140 Apricot Street, has seen its share of hardships. As of today, the school has 122 homeless students.
“About ten percent of students in the Worcester Public Schools are homeless. Any student in that situation is in a situation with a host of stressors that will affect everything that child does, most certainly including school,” said Tracy O'Connell Novick Vice-Chair Worcester School Committee.
The problem has been relentless, and federal funding won’t fit the bill.
“We’ve seen significant growth over the last few years in the need for this service. The federal government does not fund the transportation; we must fund it internally,” Novick said. Funding and many unseen factors play into helping homeless students.
Judy Thompson, Coordinator of Counseling, Psychology and Community Outreach Services for Worcester Public Schools, knows all too well the limitations when helping homeless children.
While homelessness may seem like an easy thing to define, Thompson stated that the definition is different depending on the department. Under the school system’s McKinney-Vento Act, homeless is defined more openly, and students are given better care, which is key in cities like Worcester.
“The definition for the school system is different than the definition that housing and development uses and the Housing and Community Development Office (H&CD),” she said. Many terms, such as doubled-up, can fall into one category or another.
“‘Doubled-up’ is whenever a family is sharing housing with another family. That’s our largest category in Worcester – students who are doubled up. If you’re doubled up, under the definitions used by Housing and Urban Development, (HUD) and H&CD, you’re not considered homeless. But under the school’s regulations, you are.” These issues can convolute the matter of figuring out just how many students in an area are living in these types of situations.
“If you check with HUD services, that won’t include numbers of students who are doubled-up and kids who are in temporary foster care, or those living in shelters or hotels,” Thompson said. She attests to the need of including students in these situations, as they are often just as challenging for the student.
“Kids who are in temporary foster care and doubled-up have a lot in common with kids in the shelter system in that it’s an unstable situation,” she said. “When you’re sharing housing with another family, you don’t have the same flexibility or freedom. You may be sleeping on the floor. There may be a lot of tension in the home. There may not be a good place to do your homework. A lot of people who are doubled-up move a lot due to not wanting to be a burden. They move and move and move. They may not get a good night sleep. They may act out more.”
“We know we’re undercounting,” Thompson said. “Data we have here has to be qualified given that we don’t know the actual number. At Sullivan, the number is 122. Ninety of those are doubled-up, nine are in shelters, 15 are in temporary foster care, no students are in an unsheltered situation, four are in hotels or motels, and four students are in unaccompanied use, which means that the student is living apart from a parent or legal guardian.”
Thompson is responsible for all schools in the city of Worcester.
“We only know who is homeless if the families share the info with us. It’s a voluntary disclosure. There is an unknown number who choose not to disclose,” she said. “Identification is less than perfect because we depend on people sharing information with us. Some people just say, ‘It’s not your business.’”
“What we try to do – and we try to be very sensitive with these issues – if we’re talking with a family, we will say, ‘I’m going to ask you some possibly intrusive questions, but this will help us determine if your child is eligible for our services.’”
Thompson also explained how difficult it is to cover all of the financial needs of homeless students.
What the schools can do
Worcester Public Schools affords students many services, but they all come with a price.
“The most notable are services under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, which requires that students who move out of their home school area due to reason of homelessness be allowed to stay in their original school, and be provided transportation to do so,” said Tracy Novick.
“From school districts, they get free breakfast and lunch without having to provide income information. Usually a student has do have to do that to receive the service,” Thompson said. Novick also noted the rising number of schools opening food pantries for students. The school system also provides students with transportation to provide school continuity, but busing children up to two hours each day becomes financially and emotionally taxing.
“This has been one of the most difficult parts for us to comply with. We’re busing kids in from Worcester to Northborogh for example. Sometimes, this ends up costing over $500 a week to move them. Multiply that by the number of students, and it becomes very difficult,” Thompson said.
Feasibility is also an issue and is different depending on the age of the student in question.
“Feasibility is considered not over 45 minutes for younger students, and an hour for those who are older. It’s obviously not in the best interest of the student if they’re being bused two hours every day,” Thompson said. In other situations, when busing is more inconvenient, students may also be given a WRTA bus pass.
Besides meals and transportation, Thompson has also been behind a successful effort that started a free immunization clinic.
“It became a critical need a couple years ago because the Department of Public Health of the City of Worcester closed the Health Department on Main Street for budget reasons. We can’t help every child in the city, but it has benefited many students,” she said. “If they aren’t up to date with their shots, they have to be able to enroll and attend immediately even if they’re missing shots and paperwork, which can be tricky.”
Other help in the community
Sullivan Middle School has also received aid from other sectors of the community. The Worcester Regional Association of Realtors (WRAR) has been helping homeless students at the local schools through their Community Action Committee.
“When people need things that’s what we’re all about,” said Lisa Sprague, Membership Manager at WRAR.
“We take food to different places, like Sullivan Middle School. The Community Action Committee does a lot of things like that,” she said. “We’ve done food drives and backpack drives for the students – we do all that for the homeless to help out. We also do coat drives in the winter.”
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