There are 10,522 homeless students in West Virginia, a number so large it could fill the state’s largest high school more than five times.
Homeless students account for nearly 4 percent of all students enrolled this past school year in kindergarten through 12th grade in public schools, according to data from the West Virginia Department of Education for the 2018-19 school year.
It means that if your child is in a class of 25 students, odds are that one of the children is sleeping on a family member’s couch, living in a car or RV, or residing in a shelter.
Homeless students often can change schools multiple times throughout the school year, leading to a breakdown of a social network and falling behind academically.
Lawmakers in June passed an omnibus education bill advertised as a way to help struggling students, yet several lawmakers admitted the thousands of homeless students weren’t mentioned in months of debate leading up to the final vote.
Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, admitted she didn’t know the number of homeless students.
Rucker said the homeless students data was never mentioned by school officials or the state education department.
“I would have thought that should be reported to us,” she said.
“They don’t like to say, ‘I need help’ ”School districts are required to count homeless students under federal education law, which outlines who can be included in the tally: students who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.
The count doesn’t include students in foster care, but does include students who are doubled up with family and friends, living in shelters or in hotels.
Data from the state Department of Education shows the following counties have the highest share of the state’s homeless students:
n Jefferson County — 1,411 students, or 16 percent of students
n Kanawha County — 652 students, or 3 percent of students
n Clay County — 633 students, or 34 percent of students
n Mercer County — 588 students, or 7 percent of students
n Cabell County — 455 students, or 4 percent of students
Sixteen counties, including Kanawha, reported a decrease in its homeless student population in the past year.
However, the total number of 10,522, which state education department officials admit could be underreported, is up from 9,625 in the 2017-18 school year.
“It could be attributed to several things,” said Rebecca Derenge, the state’s coordinator for McKinney-Vento, the federal law since 1987 that guides how homeless students are counted and what resources are available to them. “We had a flood three years ago, and a lot of that hasn’t been settled in the counties who suffered. A lot of those people aren’t settled and living in hotels, motels, doubled up and in campers.”
Derenge, who has been in her role for 17 years, also pointed to the opioid epidemic as reason behind the number.
Even in Jefferson County, the state’s wealthiest county, Derenge said school officials there reported opioids as the reason why its homeless student population had grown by nearly 600 in two school years.
The majority of the state’s homeless students — 87 percent — are doubled up due to economic hardship, meaning they’re staying with family or friends, but not under the state’s kinship care program.
Identifying and accurately counting these students can be difficult, Derenge admitted, because so many students are living in poverty, and parents, who can note homelessness on their child’s enrollment form, are often ashamed or unaware they meet the definition of student homelessness.
“A lot of families don’t want to reach out to the school. They don’t want that stigma,” Melissa Harper, homeless facilitator for Kanawha County Schools, said.
This means the number could be higher than what the state recorded.
Attendance liaisons regularly serve as homeless liaisons in the state’s school districts, and they’re responsible for turning in district homeless numbers to the state education department.
Derenge regularly trains school personnel, including teachers and bus drivers, on how to identify students experiencing homelessness so they can be connected to resources.
When Derenge thinks a district’s numbers are too low, she said she calls its homeless liaison and reiterates the importance of accurate tallying.
“West Virginia is very culturally protective of their own, and they don’t like to say, ‘I need help,’” she said.
Some services guaranteed, others depend on county
Every kid’s story is different, but the lack of a permanent bed undoubtedly affects school performance, Harper said.
“I noticed when these kids don’t have a place to go each night ... then they’re just all over the place,” she said. “They’re not going to have their backpacks, tennis shoes, homework. It’s just kind of getting dropped along the way where they’re staying.”
Federal education law guarantees certain rights to the country’s more than 1.2 million homeless students, including immediate enrollment despite lack of documents.
However, Derenge explained that other resources for homeless students, including tutoring, are largely dependent on what’s available in the district, and in its network of local nonprofits and churches.
All school districts are required to set aside federal money to help homeless students, according to Melanie Purkey with the office of federal programs in the state education department.
“It tends to go to clothing and school supplies,” she said.
While every county reported homelessness — the lowest being Tyler County, with 14 homeless students — only 16 counties received shares of the state’s $585,000 in federal grants for homeless students, according to Derenge.
She explained most counties that received money contain homeless shelters, and the money was used for tutoring programs in the shelters.
The YWCA Sojourner’s Shelter for Homeless Women and Families, in Charleston, where 15 students are currently living, has a learning lab where kids and teens have access to computers, tutoring, school supplies and more. Volunteers regularly come in to work with the kids.
Margaret Taylor, the shelter’s director, said most students have already been to three or four schools by the time their families arrive at the shelter.
“It’s not the kids’ fault that they end up being homeless,” Taylor said. “We try to bridge that gap between the school system and our kids.”
Resources like those at Sojourner’s are not typically available for homeless kids in counties where there are no shelters.
Other resources available to homeless students — food for after school and weekends, summer educational programs, additional clothing — is reliant upon a network of nonprofits and churches who are providing services to these children.
Derange pointed to Clay County as an example of where a community has come together to serve homeless kids.
Clay County Schools Assistant Superintendent Joan Haynie said local churches and businesses provide school supplies and food when they can. National nonprofits have brought in shoes and books for elementary students.
“Our community does a lot to support families in need,” Haynie said.
Omnibus bill doesn’t mention homeless students
West Virginia’s homeless students are without a doubt in need of the same type of academic and socioemotional support that lawmakers focused on with the omnibus education measure.
The legislation — along with authorizing charter schools — will provide money for additional support personnel, including psychologists and social workers, and increases the time school counselors are required to spend with students.
Gov. Jim Justice signed it into law June 28.
Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, who voted against the legislation, said he argued that it wasn’t enough to help the state’s struggling students.
Like Rucker, he hadn’t heard the number of homeless students and said they weren’t discussed in the bill’s evolution.
“We didn’t do enough,” he said.
Rucker, who played a lead role in advocating for the omnibus bill, said the topic wasn’t raised in meetings with educators. Additionally, homeless students were never mentioned in the 2018 state education report that identified successes and challenges.
Upon learning the number of homeless students, Rucker replied, “It is interesting that none of the schools, none of the superintendents, none of them brought it as an issue. With that, you have to count more trauma issues and need for those services they told us they so desperately needed.”
But decreasing the number of homeless students or increasing services for them won’t come as a result of legislation, Rucker said.
“It’s going to happen because a community gets together and starts working toward goals,” Rucker said. “The best thing is to help these families before they lose their house. I cannot imagine how a student is going to get a good education if they don’t have a good home to go to and a safe place to go.
“I truly cannot picture how horrible.”