Some live in the forest, stepping on the school bus as it stops by Houston Mesa Campground. Others sleep on friends’ couches, but have no bed of their own.
But most of Payson’s homeless youth live “doubled up” with other families, out of economic necessity.
“These are not students who are walking the streets with shopping carts with their parents,” said Payson schools Superintendent Casey O’Brien. About 82 percent of Payson’s 320 homeless students fall into the “doubled up” category.
With roughly 2,700 students enrolled district-wide, more than 10 percent classify as homeless.
Many students move in with grandparents living on a fixed income. Added mouths to feed on a limited budget can create stress, said Kathy Kay, curriculum director. Other times, several families reside under one roof.
The ramifications of doubling up reach beyond crowded quarters. If money problems affect a student’s housing situation, other basics like food and health care could also see impacts.
The district recently won a $65,700 federal grant to provide a full-time homeless advocate to support students academically. The person will also act as a hub among various social service agencies, whom O’Brien said have no existing link.
The money will help pay for supplies, tutoring and family involvement classes in conjunction with Southwest Behavioral Services.
The district also received another $15,000 in federal stimulus funds, part of which paid for district secretary Susan Campbell to work overtime, writing grants and helping students.
An upcoming homeless summit in November will gather community stakeholders to brainstorm specific issues like health care, child care and housing. More details are forthcoming.
The ranks of the homeless in Payson have grown so rapidly that district officials have found it hard to keep up. O’Brien said just 160 students were counted as homeless two-and-a-half years ago.
Blanche Oakland, who works with low-income parents in the district, took on responsibilities related to homeless students: helping them find services, listening to kids’ problems, and asking them if they had eaten that day.
But both Campbell and Oakland have other responsibilities at their full-time jobs.
District officials say the new homeless advocate will be invaluable in helping families. “By supporting the family, we’re supporting the students,” said Kay.
The district’s goal is one student, one school, one year, which means the district strives to avoid students switching schools during the year.
Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act, students are entitled to stay in their school. So, for example, if a Julia Randall Elementary School student moves into a Frontier Elementary School neighborhood, the district is obligated to transport that child to JRE. Research shows that when homeless students change schools during the school year, they can lose four to six months of instruction.
Homeless children are eligible for free meals under the act and entitled to things necessary to participate in school and extracurricular activities. Money from the federal grant can help fund those supplies.
Leveraging resources helps solve other problems.
When a child is homeless, he can’t shower. The resulting smell stigmatizes students, but district officials say they’re becoming more adept at noticing and responding to signs.
“Teachers are becoming more and more sensitive,” said Kay. A teacher can send a student to the nurse, who has a stash of clean clothes, and gym showers are available.
“Since the word has gotten out, we’ve had a tremendous outpouring of support,” Campbell said. A church in Sun City donated $250, and people have dropped off $10 or $15. Service clubs have donated school supplies and churches provide dinners.
People interested in helping can contact Campbell at the district office: 474-2070.