School staff often identify them from their shoes.
“We have seen horrible shoe situations,” said Susan Campbell, homeless services coordinator for the Payson Unified School District (PUSD) during a presentation she made at the inter-agency Consortium of Care (CoC) meeting Sept. 18.
The CoC includes all agencies in Northern Gila County that aid citizens who need help because of homelessness, illness or other circumstances beyond their control.
The group asked Campbell to talk about what the schools do to help homeless students.
Because the district gathers information on students, it finds itself at the epicenter of the issue, said Superintendent Ron Hitchcock.
“What started out as food reimbursement became the defining factor of poverty,” said Hitchcock referring to applications families fill out to receive the federal free and reduced lunch program.
Unfortunately, the school lacks the resources to cover every aspect of a homeless child’s needs, said Hitchcock.
Still, the district has tackled the enormous task of helping families facing homelessness find housing, medical care, clothing and food for the whole family, which sometimes exceeds and sometimes duplicates efforts already made by outside agencies, said Hitchcock.
He and Campbell have worked with Payson Assisting Displaced Students (PADS) to hire Allic Bales to start the process of opening lines of communication amongst Payson groups so that donors, organizations and volunteers can work together more efficiently.
Campbell wears many hats at the district. She works at the front desk, writes grants, and coordinates the services for homeless and displaced students.
She and other school employees work diligently to ensure homeless students do not feel disgraced.
“We don’t want those in their peer group to know their financial situation,” said Campbell.
The homeless program is funded through donations and grants.
Campbell said PUSD is one of the few Arizona school districts that make the effort to have McKinney Vento and free and reduced lunch federal paperwork filled out by parents.
Those efforts have shown that 25 percent of students who attend PUSD are homeless, as defined by the McKinney Vento Act. That includes both families camping out in the woods and students staying with grandparents, friends and other family members. Collecting the data has also enabled Campbell to find success writing grants.
“There were five grants available through the state,” she said. “Only one full grant was awarded — to us — and the fifth was split with us for a total of $8,000.”
That money will help buy school supplies, toiletries, food, coats, shoes and socks.
“Whenever we buy shoes, we always get packs of socks,” said Campbell.
Through word of mouth, donors get involved in helping the homeless children by offering support financially.
“I have a nice man who comes in once per month with $60 to $70 worth of gift cards to fast food restaurants. It’s nice to be able to hand them out if a family needs a good, fast, simple meal,” said Campbell.
The district homeless program helps with medical and dental programs.
“Kiwanis created a dental program for homeless students,” said Campbell.
High Desert Dentistry does free diagnostic exams and then each dental office throughout Payson offers to cover a patient pro-bono each year.
The Mogollon Health Alliance and the Justice McNeeley organization help with medical issues.
“Last year, the Justice McNeeley Foundation helped with a medical situation for a homeless student that would have exposed them to stigma if it had not been handled,” said Campbell.
The Lions Club offers financial assistance for eye exams and glasses.
Kaitie’s Closet has filled in the gap to help with clothing, said Campbell. Fitting since the non-profit organization came into existence because of a teacher.
Campbell said Kaitie, a severely disabled student, lived with her grandparents who dressed her to the nines.
When she died suddenly, her grandparents asked her teacher to ask what to do with all of the beautiful clothes they had collected for her over the years.
The teacher suggested they give them to disadvantaged students in the district. From that blossomed the non-profit organization, Kaitie’s Closet, which holds clothing giveaways once a month.
“Students come out with several outfits,” said Campbell.
Churches, thrift stores, the Boy and Girl Scouts, the Senior Center and other groups all offer help and services to aid homeless students.
Homelessness not only affects a child’s ability to do well in school, it affects their ability to complete their education. Campbell said district analysis shows a 26 percent transient rate.
Every time a student moves to a new school, it takes weeks and months for them to catch up. PUSD helps find the assistance families need to stay in one place and offer stability so a student can finish school — at least for the year.
“Our motto is: one student, one school and one year,” said Campbell.
And it starts with the shoes. Campbell said parents are so poor and children’s feet grow so quickly, they often have no idea how badly their children have outgrown their shoes.
“They just don’t know how bad it gets,” she said.