‘Way more students’: Spike in homelessness feared in Colorado school districts

Preliminary data show the number of students experiencing homelessness in Denver might have more than doubled since last year

A cyclist performs tricks outside East High School in Denver on July 28, 2020. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

During a typical academic school year, staff members are trained to spot warning signs of student homelessness: unwashed clothes, numerous missed days of school, drawings showing 20 or more people living in the same shelter space. 

Once identified, a student is referred to the state’s K-12 homeless education program, created by the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which connects them with supportive and educational services.

School officials tasked with connecting students experiencing homelessness with resources are anticipating a spike in student homelessness, because while the federal government has issued an eviction ban, it covers only housing situations with formal lease agreements. Housing advocates are also worried that more students might “fall through the cracks” during remote learning. 

“We can’t get the tools in the hands of the kids if we don’t know where they are,” said Kerry Wrenick, state coordinator for homeless education at the Colorado Department of Education. 

“We know that there’s been an extensive amount of mobility due to job losses and the housing stuff and just everything that’s transpired since March. Just getting the kids enrolled in school in the first place has been a tremendous uphill challenge.”

Not all housing situations covered under eviction moratorium

Last year, 22,224 students attending Colorado K-12 public schools were considered homeless, meaning they lacked “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence,” according to the Colorado Department of Education. Of the total number of homeless students, 2,662 were unaccompanied youth. 

A surprise announcement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week issuing a nationwide eviction moratorium through the end of the year brought some sighs of relief from housing advocates and renters, but Wrenick stressed that those in housing situations without formal lease agreements are still vulnerable to eviction.

“Many of our families struggle with barriers to housing that is sufficient in the first place. A lot of our families might rent from a landlord that will look past prior evictions or do cash-only rent,” Wrenick explained. “So some are not necessarily licensed landlords and that means that they don’t always operate as they should. We have families that get told that you need to be out by tomorrow.”

Wrenick said that some school districts have reported student enrollment decreases of up to 30% so far this year. “And I’m not just talking about students experiencing homelessness,” Wrenick said. “I’m talking about district-wide. That’s significant,” she said, adding that those numbers are “scary” when thinking about school funding.

She said it’s difficult to determine how many of the students who aren’t enrolled might be experiencing homelessness. 

“We have kids that just aren’t enrolled,” Wrenick said. “We have kids that have been withdrawn and perhaps in a different program, or being homeschooled or something like that. There’s a lot of things.”

Significant increase in student homelessness

As of Sept. 8, 337 Denver Public School students were already enrolled in the state’s homeless education program, and another 1,124 students/families are waiting to be verified and go through the intake process.

“Our numbers are definitely higher,” said Anna Theisen, program manager for Denver Public Schools Homeless Education Network. “Way, way, way more students compared to last year.” 

Theisen said that last year during the same time, approximately 600 students had been enrolled in their homeless program — meaning, if all students who have self-identified this year are successfully enrolled, the number of DPS students in the homeless program will have more than doubled compared to last year. Denver’s is the largest school district in the state.

What’s the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act?

The federal act ensures the enrollment, accessibility and educational stability for students lacking a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence, according to the Colorado Department of Education.

In order to qualify for the program, students must be living in one of the following housing situations:

  • Homeless shelter or transitional housing 
  • Motel or hotel 
  • Doubled up with friends or relatives due to loss of housing and economic hardship
  • Unsheltered, including in parks, public spaces and abandoned buildings
  • Unaccompanied youth not in the physical custody or presence of a parent or legal guardian and living in one of the above situations

Eligible students are automatically enrolled in school regardless of paperwork, and are entitled to free meals and transportation to and from school so they can remain in their “school of origin.” Fees for extracurricular activities and educational programs are waived. 

When families are identified and enrolled in the program, students get automatically signed up for free meals for the entire school year. DPS’ program also provides school supplies, clothing, and emergency food payment, and it covers school fees and transportation to and from school. “Which helps families be able to stay in their original school if they are staying with a friend out of town or experiencing homelessness.”

When the stay-at-home order was issued in March, Theisen said communicating with families experiencing homelessness became, at times, impossible. “It was really hard,” she said. “We shifted into crisis school mode and we unfortunately weren’t able to make contact with a lot of families during that time.” 

In Denver, the number of students experiencing homelessness has been steadily increasing over the last few years. According to the district’s annual report, 2,124 students were homeless during the 2019-20 school year, compared to 1,849 during the 18-19 academic year. 

“I’ve heard from several of our shelter programs that they’ve had a pretty large influx of new families coming into Denver,” Theisen said. “So we’re going to really be focusing on getting these students enrolled.”

She said that her staff, as well as the Department of Education, have started to collect data on the reasons why a person is facing housing instability. “So we are asking if it was due to the pandemic, was it due to domestic factors, was it due to loss of a job. So we will hopefully be able to get a better understanding of the landscape and how this has impacted families.” 

Her staff of five is directing families facing homelessness to Denver Human Services, which have funds allocated for eviction prevention. “We know that moving houses and facing housing instability directly impact a student’s ability to learn, in terms of just the trauma and the crisis that comes with that,” Theisen said. 

“Research shows that students who experience homelessness are 87% more likely to drop out of school,” she said. “We know that every time a student has to change schools, move programs, they can lose up to three months of learning.”

Theisen said removing the stigma around homelessness and housing instability is crucial during this time.

“Child and family homelessness is oftentimes invisible. It’s not necessarily something that folks see or know about,” Theisen said, adding that it’s important for families to remember that housing instability is not a reflection of a parent’s ability to care for their child. “It’s not a reflection of them as people. And that’s really important. We want folks to be able to reach out for assistance when they need it.”

Smaller school districts lack staff, resources for homeless outreach

Unlike the Denver Public School system, many smaller school districts lack the staff and resources to keep up with the outreach needed to connect with students who are not enrolled in school and potentially experiencing homelessness or housing instability.

“It takes a lot of time, and a lot of perseverance. Not every school district is as fortunate as DPS to have a whole team dedicated to that,” Wrenick said.

Under the McKinney-Vento Act, every school district must have a dedicated person to be the homeless education liaison.  

A family poses for a portrait outside the Greeley Family House in Weld County. The house provides emergency shelter, temporary housing and support services to families who are experiencing housing instability. (Photo provided by Nancy Wiehagen/Greeley Family House)

“In districts that have that capacity, they’re able to follow up with families that were on the roster. But for those districts where that liaison position is just another job duty as assigned, and maybe they are also a district administrator and they are trying to figure out just day-to-day stuff,” Wrenick said. “It’s hard to have the time to do that extensive work.”

Marc Fortney, a regional McKinney-Vento specialist for northeast and east central Colorado, stressed that there is a misconception that homelessness is only an urban phenomenon. 

“So the state average in Colorado for students that do not have a permanent address is around 3%,” said Fortney, who has worked in this role for 14 years. “Well, some of our more rural districts, a few of them can run up to as high as 15% or 17%.”

Fortney is especially worried about increasing homelessness among migrant workers and their families. 

“We are really concerned about our agricultural workers that are working in seasonal, temporary or dangerous jobs,” Fortney said, adding that during the 2018-19 academic year, 80% of new students that were a part of the state’s Migrant Education Program in northern regions of Colorado also qualified for the McKinney-Vento homeless program.

“This has always been a vulnerable population, but even more now. Certainly with COVID-19 and the pandemic,” he said. “Unfortunately a lot more families and students that are migrant agricultural workers will be homeless under McKinney-Vento in the next couple months.”

Nancy Wiehagen, executive director of the Greeley Family House in Weld County, said that she hasn’t seen a significant increase in the number of families seeking assistance during the pandemic — and that surprised her.

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“Since May, maybe April, we have been amazed at how we have not been inundated. We really thought we would be,” Weihagen said. “Although in the last week we have suddenly seen an increase in applications.”

The Greeley Family House provides emergency shelter, temporary housing and support services to families who are experiencing housing instability in Weld County. Before the pandemic, the organization hosted up to 12 families at a time, but due to the coronavirus, that number is down to six. “But we also have 46 families in our transitional program out in the community who are being assisted,” Wiehagen added.

  Referrals are less right now, and I worry about that. I really do.   -Nancy Wiehagen, executive director of the Greeley Family House

Wiehagen said she fears that students and families facing homelessness are “slipping through the cracks” and not being connected with resources now that schools have gone remote. She said during a typical academic year, her organization receives many referrals from nearby schools for students experiencing housing instability. 

“I fear that we are not seeing them come through because people aren’t hearing about them,” she said. “Those referrals are less right now, and I worry about that. I really do.”

Another issue, explained Wiehagen, is that many kids who have received Chromebooks from their schools lack internet access. “We have pockets of neighborhoods that do not have internet, and for some of our low income families the cost of internet is another concern,” she said.

Last week, Gov. Jared Polis announced he would invest $2 million in coronavirus relief funds to expand broadband access throughout Colorado.

Wiehagen said students are going to local libraries to be able to attend school online. “But that’s if they can get there,” she said. “That’s also an issue for our kids.”

She said it’s important for families to know that seeking housing assistance isn’t a handout. “It’s a hand up,” Wiehagen said. “It’s not permanent, this is just a hand up.”