This summer, Amelia Knisely reported in the Charleston Gazette-Mail that 10,522 students in West Virginia are homeless. State Superintendent of Education Steve Paine called the report “not significant,” before later apologizing. Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said that label “obscures” the real problem and that our state “is doing well” with homelessness.
Let me be clear: One homeless child is too many. With 10,000 and growing, we are in a painfully significant crisis.
The West Virginia Department of Education tracks homeless children. Last school year, 10,522 students did not have a permanent home. That means they live in hotels, shelters, on the streets, or “doubled up” with family or friends. To double up means a child must sleep in different places constantly, as they move from couch to couch at the homes of others.
Contrary to conjecture, students living with family members who are their guardians are not considered homeless. Children living in foster care are not included in homeless data, either. According to DHHR, 6,796 children live in foster care as of August 2019.
Since 2016, the number of homeless students in West Virginia has increased by 13 percent. Calhoun County saw a 297 percent increase, Monongalia County a 144 percent increase and Jefferson County a 45 percent increase.
Carmichael cited the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness when he argued that student homelessness isn’t a real problem. He quoted the agency when writing that only 73 state families had experienced homelessness. I found it shocking that anyone living in West Virginia would believe that statistic.
I discovered the link to the information he provided did not exist. When I eventually found the numbers online, several proved to be incorrect. Joe Savage, regional coordinator for USICH, confirmed to me via email that they posted incorrect statistics and will correct their mistake.
The state Department of Education statistics are based on self-reported information to school homelessness coordinators. Based on my experience as a pastor and Board of Education member who works with the homeless, I believe the real numbers are significantly higher. Most folks refuse to self-report their own dire circumstances.
Carmichael argues we should change the definition of homelessness to exclude doubling up and those affected by natural disasters. If we were to do that, we could strip away services for our most vulnerable students who need those services to escape the cycle of poverty.
Frankly, the label we put on homelessness is not the issue. The very real problems are the root causes of homelessness — drugs, poverty, trauma and natural disasters. The legislature had an opportunity this summer to consider bills to help.
During the special session on education, I proposed a bill to help reduce drug abuse through expansion of the successful Drug Free Mother Baby Program. Senate Republican leadership told me it wasn’t related to education reform, and buried it in a committee that never met.
I proposed a bill to expand student support personnel to allow at least one full-time mental health professional in each school. Senate leadership said that was too expensive.
I was thankful when Delegate Mark Dean, R-Mingo, a principal, successfully added an amendment in the House of Delegates to increase student support personnel, though it does not rise to the level of allowing one full-time employee per school.
Sen. Glenn Jeffries, D-Putnam, proposed a bill to expand career and technical training into our middle schools. According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2017 West Virginia assisted 46,886 CTE high school students. Of those, 99 percent graduated, 91 percent met performance goals and 77 percent went directly into an apprenticeship, the military, or the workforce. CTE helps students focus on school. Yet, Senate leadership ignored it.
Gov. Jim Justice proposed a flood recovery bill to get families back into homes more quickly following natural disasters. House leadership refused to take it up, and Senate leadership said it could wait until later.
We must open our eyes to see our children and families in crisis. We cannot downplay the facts to fit a convenient narrative. We cannot show more concern over a label than the reality that thousands of West Virginia children face each day. Our state needs leaders who acknowledge the struggles of our most vulnerable children and enact policies to truly help.