You've seen them: Students with drawn faces, grumbling bellies and repeat clothing. Or maybe they're not as obvious; maybe they're withdrawn or sullen. But they are here, in the classrooms, and beyond that, anywhere.
They are homeless. And their numbers are growing.
Statewide, nearly 110,000 students were homeless during the 2012-13 school year, according to State Education Department figures. That's up 74 percent from 2007-08, the first year of the Great Recession.
The problem is becoming especially acute in the state's 26 designated rural counties, among the poorest in the state, where shelters and services are severely limited and schools are often the only lifeline.
In St. Lawrence County, which borders Canada, the number of homeless students spiked to a staggering 697 in 2012-13 from 193 just three years earlier.
At the highest mark last year, the Parishville-Hopkinton school district had 46 temporarily housed students out of 460 pre-K-12 students.
"We have so many homeless students," said school counselor and homeless student liaison Melissa Scudder, a member of the Parishville-Hopkinton Teachers Association. "There's so many different, sad reasons."
One family's stark circumstances recently drew national attention.
School staff discovered the Wieczorek family — 11 members, including grandparents — living in tents in the woods. The encampment was set up alongside the St. Regis River on land the family owned.
Educators originally thought the family was staying in a camp. Guidance secretary Geri Lynn Wilson, a member of the Parishville-Hopkinton Non-Teachers Association, went out to visit the family with her husband, thinking her church could help.
"The youngest little guy had come to school, and his clothes were in bad shape and they were really short," she said. "They had talked about how they were staying in a camp. We had an address, so we went looking for them and just found a mailbox."
Neighbors told them about a road — "a good mile, mile-and-a-half walk" — to get to the camp, where they found the family in the woods.
"They had tents all around," Wilson said. "It was starting to get chilly and they were all getting sick. They had to be close to the wood fire to stay warm, so their clothes and bags reeked of smoke. They couldn't keep food refrigerated."
Scudder and Wilson went into action to help the family, contacting community service agencies, churches and neighborhood centers. They obtained the security deposit and first month's rent the family needed to get into a house.
"We helped them find a place to live to get them out of the woods before wintertime," Scudder said. "That's just one story. We have so many."
Most districts do, too.
Students being temporarily housed throughout the state tallied 109,916 in 2012-13. That's an increase of 46,794 from 2007-08, according to SED figures.
Families may become homeless or temporarily housed if there is a divorce, a job loss, a cut in hours at work or abuse. Many service jobs do not pay enough for parents to afford rent and child care. Some parents have mental health issues or substance abuse problems.
And some families have to leave their homes because of raunchy living conditions created by landlords who won't take care of leaks or rodents.
For a student identified as homeless, the roof overhead at night could be a shelter, a motel, somewhere awaiting foster care placement, or "doubled up" in shared housing — "couch surfing," said Ira Schwartz, SED assistant commissioner in the Office of Accountability.
"Many students who are homeless may have experienced trauma," he said.
"Having teachers aware of which students in their classrooms are living in temporary housing better enables teachers to tailor their strategies, for example, by incorporating trauma-sensitive approaches," Schwartz said.
Doubling up with other families is most common, but a dispute — more apt to happen within crowded conditions — can leave one family out in the cold again.
The school community is a retaining wall against a full downward slide.
Last spring, Parishville-Hopkinton educators and staff, including reading teacher Rosemaria Rivezzi and Therese Baxter, a math teacher, set up a backpack program to send students home with food on long weekends and holidays, mirroring a statewide movement of many teacher and staff unions.
Scudder received a grant for the program from the Northern Zone Association for Counseling and Development, her association of school counselors. The Parishville-Hopkinton TA, along with neighborhood centers, also donated funds.
Through a St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES grant, Baxter and Scudder became trained mentors, able to refer students to dental care, mental health counseling, emergency housing and help with domestic violence.
"I'm really passionate about this ... I had no idea how prevalent temporary housing was in the North Country or how homelessness truly affected our students ... Unfortunately, I also became aware of the lack of services available to families at risk," said Baxter.
FOR MORE INFO
Resources for strategies for teachers working with homeless students can be found at http://nysteachs.org/info-topic/schoolsuccess.html and at http://nysteachs.org/info-topic/strategies.html.
HELP FOR HOMELESS STUDENTS
SED reports student homeless data to the U.S. Department of Education, which requires each district, under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, to have a trained liaison. Liaisons work to ensure students:
- are transported to their school of origin even if they are as far as 50 miles outside school boundaries;
- get into school even if they do not have proof of residency, birth certificate or proof of immunizations; and
provide them access to free school meals, supplies and other services.