CLEARWATER — When school lets out in Pinellas County, thousands of kids rush into their parents’ air-conditioned cars, go to after-school activities and practices or simply take the bus home to watch TV.
But there’s a growing population of students that gathers up everything it owns every night and looks for a safe place to sleep. Sometimes that might be a family member’s couch, other nights a homeless shelter or a sidewalk.
“There are far too many kids going through the traumatic experience of spending their whole school day wondering where they’re going to sleep that night,” said Althea Hudson, the homeless liaison for Pinellas County Schools.
As more students and parents come to the school district for help, school administrators are looking to a Hillsborough County program, Starting Right, Now, for support.
School officials met with the organization on Friday, and Superintendent Michael Grego has said he is on board with the program, which counts Hillsborough County school Superintendent MaryEllen Elia and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn as board members.
The nonprofit organization helps homeless students obtain identification documents, finds them places to stay and even pays for them to attend school dances or extracurricular activities. It also teaches students the life skills needed to manage their finances, get jobs and earn scholarships for college.
Though Pinellas County offers programs for homeless families and unaccompanied youth — school-aged kids living on their own — in the school district, a team of only six teachers, including Hudson, coordinates everything from school bus assignments and programs for teen parents to shopping for school clothes.
There’s an ever-growing “wish list” of services that Starting Right, Now may be able to provide Pinellas students, Hudson said. With more schools switching to school uniforms or enforcing stricter dress codes this year, there’s a huge need for collared shirts, basic slacks and shoes that meet requirements. There’s also a need for storage space for all of the supplies the school district gives students, including duffel bags full of items such as alarm clocks, flashlights and towels given to homeless graduates. The school district would also like to include laptops or iPads in those bags.
“But most of all, we would love for our high school students to have the opportunity to visit colleges so they can see that there is support on the postsecondary level and that if you have a dream and you want to go to college it can become a reality,” Hudson said. “Most times, they don’t see that as an option for them.”
At least 100 students have been referred to the Starting Right, Now program by the Hillsborough County school district, and each is paired with an adult mentor. About $816,000 in grants and contributions made to the organization last year also help those efforts. Pinellas’ entire homeless education program has a budget of $114,000.
Eventually, Starting Right, Now might start providing services to students here in Pinellas County.
Though the Pinellas school district’s homeless education team has actually grown over the years, more families realizing they can get help in a confidential and substantial way have begun to seek out its services, said Christine Cantrell, the school district’s homeless student progress monitor. There is extra support for the team’s efforts from organizations such as the Juvenile Welfare Board, the Daniel Foundation and the Salvation Army. But Cantrell said “there is still a huge need that needs to be met.”
During the 2012-2013 school year, 3,035 students identified themselves as homeless and received services, while in 2007-2008 there were only 962, according to the school district.
“A lot of it’s due to the economy and parents who haven’t finished school, which makes it hard to keep a job, and who don’t encourage their kids to finish school,” said Stephanie Bell, director of west coast operations for the Daniel Foundation, a nonprofit child service agency. “We’re really making a push to identify kids that need help before they get into the juvenile justice system or drop out of school, but finding the funding is always a challenge.”
The students academic profiles also catch some by surprise. Though many participate in after-school tutoring or makeup sessions, others are receiving college scholarships and graduating at the top of their class, Bell said.
Last school year, 101 students considered homeless by the school district were involved in magnet programs, 51 were considered gifted, and 65 graduated with their high school diplomas.
The rising cost of housing in the county and the shrinking job market has led to a surge of homelessness over the past few years, as well as more unaccompanied youth traveling from couch to couch, said Kip Corriveau, director of social services for the Clearwater branch of the Salvation Army. The warm climate also draws homeless people from out of state looking to get away from colder weather. That’s strained the county’s resources for homeless people.
There are usually 20 families living at the Clearwater branch of the Salvation Army at any one time, though the facility is undergoing construction to expand, Corriveau said.
“Two of the biggest predictors of homelessness as adults is experience with homelessness as a child, because it becomes normal, and the foster care system, and there has been tremendous energy in the last few years to work with kids so they can break out of that statistic,” Corriveau said. “Each experience of homelessness is a trauma for the kids, and so a majority of the families I work with were foster kids or homeless; [they] don’t have life skills or didn’t graduate high school. There’s always a need for more help, especially now.”
With each phone call to Hudson’s desk, such as the single mother of four who is looking for an apartment away from a violent home situation, the need for more help becomes apparent.
“Sometimes we’re successful, and sometimes we’re not,” Hudson said. “It’s heartbreaking when you have a family and you can’t help them. ... Right now this mother’s situation is not looking promising. That’s why we really need to intervene in these students’ lives now so they don’t continue the cycle.”