High School student school bags outside the classroom at an educational facility

While the number of homeless students in public schools statewide has dropped by 15% over the past five years, their numbers in the Pikes Peak region’s 17 school districts have risen by nearly 20%.

Colorado has 2,422 fewer homeless students, declining from 16,104 in 2015 to 13,682 this school year, according to statistics released recently by the Colorado Department of Education.

The 15 districts in El Paso County and two in Teller County jointly report 1,113 homeless students this school year, up from 901 in 2015-16, a Gazette analysis shows.

A lack of affordable housing is a key reason for the rise locally, said Andy Barton, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of Central Colorado, headquartered in Colorado Springs.

“When we have a thriving economy growing like gangbusters, that has a detrimental effect on housing,” he said.

In addition, “Our community has focused a great deal of its resources on chronic adult homeless and veteran’ homeless populations, and while we believe we need to serve all individuals who are homeless, there’s a case of families being left to the side.

“It’s one of the most dangerous secrets in our community.”

Under the federal government’s McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which guarantees equal education by providing additional funding for schools to help homeless students with services, the definition of homeless students is broader than that used for adults under the U.S. Housing and Urban Development program, for example, and the annual Point In Time count of homeless conducted in Colorado Springs earlier this week.

Homeless students are those who lack “a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence,” and live in “a shelter, motel, inadequate trailer or house,” or kids who are “staying temporarily with relatives or friends due to economic hardship or loss of housing, or living in any other homeless situation.”

Nationally, the National Center for Homeless Education reported earlier this week that 1.5 million public school students were identified as homeless in the 2017-2018 academic year, an 11% increase over the previous school year and the highest number recorded nationwide.

Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill that would provide state funding to five programs that provide homeless youth services, including The Place in Colorado Springs, formerly Urban Peak. 

Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8 stands out locally and statewide for high homeless enrollment and high success in addressing their needs.

The district, in which about 70% of its 8,529 students are connected to military families, has seen an 18% jump in homeless students since 2015, for a total of 278 this academic year.

At the same time, D-8 also had the lowest dropout rate — 1.2% — of homeless middle and high school students among 20 districts statewide with 100 or more homeless students. Just two of its 162 secondary homeless students dropped out in the 2018-2019 school year, according to the state education data.

And D-8 posted the second highest on-time graduation rate in 2018-19 of the state’s 17 districts that had 50 or more homeless high school students, with 68% of homeless students (34 of 50 prospective graduates) earning a diploma in the normal four-year window.

The statewide homeless graduation rate was 55.5% for 2018-2019, and in the Pikes Peak region's districts, it was 46.7% (164 of 351 potential graduates).

D-8 employs a full-time McKinney-Vento Act liaison who works with the district’s homeless students and this year received enough funding to hire a part-time employee as well.

The social workers regularly get together with individual homeless students, during what they call a “Check and Connect” session, said Promis Bruno, a social worker in D-8 and the district’s McKinney-Vento liaison for the past decade.

They monitor changes in living situations, determine educational needs and chart progress and gaps.

“It’s really meeting students where they’re at and building that relationship,” Bruno said.

They also speak with parents to figure out how the district can assist in their journey to secure stable housing and make sure they have basic necessities. Bruno also runs the district’s food pantry and clothing closet.

The district’s influx of homeless students has been primarily in grades third through seventh, Bruno said. often among families “that don’t seem to be able to get out of their current situation.”

Some military adults may have younger siblings living with them and don’t realize they cannot live on Fort Carson, for example, so must relocate but don’t have the money to move.

Some military wives with deployed husbands miss paying the rent because it’s too high for the paycheck they receive, she said.

“Fountain used to be an affordable place,” Bruno said, adding that the rent for 22 D-8 families recently jumped from $800 to $1,340 a month.

“Some picked up extra jobs, some relocated and some through grants were able to get into a new place.”

Homeless middle and high school students in D-8 receive individual attention from social workers, counselors and teachers, to ensure they are on track with earning credits needed to graduate, Bruno said.

“We make sure we have it right, whatever we can do to help them get to classes and support them to make it to graduation,” she said. They also explore options after high school, whether it’s a certification program, community college or traditional college.

This school year, 12 students are identified as “unaccompanied and homeless,” meaning they are not under the care of a parent or guardian and are couch surfing or on their own in a shelter program.

“We try to be a supportive hand,” Bruno said.

Because when parents are stressed by the struggles involved with finding housing and other basic needs, they often can’t focus on their children, said Lori Cooper, assistant superintendent of student achievement for D-8.

“Promis is very hands-on, almost like another family member,” she said. “When parents are in survival mode, they need that someone else to navigate school and education.”

The community is working on providing more accommodations for homeless families, Catholic Charities’ Barton said, adding that children who are not school-age are not counted in the Department of Education tallies, so the numbers are higher than reported. 

The Family Solutions Collaborative, which hosted a summit for families in crisis in October for representatives from 14 local family service agencies, is looking at ways to address the issue, he said.

Family Promise, a transitional housing organization that operates Interfaith Hospitality Network, will open a 17-unit, low-barrier family shelter within the month. Barton calls the addition “a big step.”

“It’s going to provide shelter for some of the most vulnerable kids,” he said.

“There’s movement in the right direction,” Barton said. “There’s no question family homelessness is an issue this community should be prioritizing more than we have.”

Gazette statistician Burt Hubbard contributed to this article.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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