When Allic Bales lost her job just over a year ago, she didn’t worry about losing her home. Although financially secure, she felt traumatized nonetheless.
The experience spurred her to volunteer with the St. Vincent de Paul food bank and take citizens classes given by the sheriff.
Bales remembers driving with police officers on ride-alongs and seeing encampments of homeless people in the woods. The deputies told her those living in the woods had to move every couple of weeks to avoid violating the law.
Bales felt compelled to help. About three weeks ago, she became Payson Unified School District’s new homeless advocate, a position funded through a federal grant.
“It was pretty traumatic for me,” Bales said about losing her job. Financial stress compounds emotional stress in an overall demoralizing experience.
Payson schools’ population of homeless students has exploded since the economic downturn, and is now more than 320. Six new homeless qualifying forms came into the office during one recent week alone. The district’s total enrollment is about 2,700.
About 82 percent of students qualifying as homeless live “doubled up,” meaning multiple families staying under one roof.
Parent Community Liaison Blanche Oakland said at a recent homeless summit that she has seen as many as eight families under one roof.
Bales said, “I did not realize how hard it is when you have a family and you have a home and another family comes to live with you.” More families means more mouths to feed, more noise when children try to complete homework, and disruptions for everybody’s routines.
When grandchildren move in with grandparents on a fixed income, the implications can be similarly taxing.
Under federal homeless qualifications, children are considered homeless if they live in temporary shelters, are unsheltered in the forest or in a car, or live with another family because of economic hardship. Unaccompanied youth with no parents also count as homeless.
In Pine, six children in four families are living with grandparents. The district’s total enrollment is 134. However, Superintendent Mike Clark said the parents of those children haven’t signed the homeless paperwork.
“I don’t know if it’s an embarrassment,” he said, but more likely, “as far as they’re concerned they’re not homeless.” With a warm bed at night and food to eat, the families likely don’t care about federal definitions.
Consequently, the district hasn’t received related federal money, but Clark said the school hasn’t needed to corral resources to help.
Payson schools, however, have added staff and some existing staff have worked overtime to meet the growing need. Oakland, whose main job involves working with low-income families, now works with middle and high school homeless children, while Bales focuses on homeless elementary school kids.
Payson schools received a $65,700 federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act grant, which will pay Bales’ salary, and helps to purchase clothes and other necessities for homeless children.
Bales can take kids to Walmart and buy them shoes or a coat, if they need it.
She usually begins her day by calling the school secretaries, who alert her about newly homeless students, or if a situation has arisen that requires attention. Bales speaks with parents, determines their needs, and works to find corresponding resources.
If the family needs and qualifies for food stamps, she’ll help set it up, or perhaps sign a student up for an after-school program at the library. She also makes sure the child receives lunch through the federal free lunch program at school.
If a family moves out of a school’s attendance area, Bales will work so the child doesn’t switch schools. Federal homeless law requires districts to transport a child to his original school even if the child moves out of the area.
If a child attending Payson Elementary School, for instance, moved into Frontier Elementary School’s area, the district would still transport him to PES.
The services are meant to avoid stigmatizing homeless children and to reduce the disruptions in their lives.
Research shows that when homeless students change schools during the year, they can lose up to six months of academic progress, according to the district.
Bales says her services transcend offering practical help.
“It’s an emotional support for the family,” she said.
Small children often handle becoming homeless better than teenagers, Bales said.
She talked about two sisters who moved in with their grandmother. The little girl managed well, while the teenager experienced more emotional turmoil.
Tremendous support from local service organizations has resulted in donations including composition notebooks, backpacks and even a graphing calculator.
Kiwanis Club members donated goods, the Rotary Club wrote a check and Rim Country Healing Rooms donated close to 100 winter jackets — nearly all of which students have already claimed. Big Brothers Big Sisters is helping one student find a bike to ride to work.
District receptionist Susan Campbell said unusual offers have filtered in since the homeless summit earlier this month sponsored by Payson schools and Southwest Behavioral Services.
A beautician in Pine has offered free shampoos, cuts and styles to people referred by the district office, and another gentleman has volunteered to repair cars, also by referral.
“I have spent hours writing thank-you notes,” said Campbell.
Bales said the extent of the need has surprised her the most during the first three weeks of her job. But every day, she works to help.