By Robert Davis
After the final school bell rings, many of Denver’s public school children cram their way onto buses, wait for their parents to pick them up, or simply walk home.
For others, their afternoons aren’t so simple.
More than 2,000 of Denver’s youth are facing homelessness in various forms. Some couch surf while others rely on shelters for warmth.
Homework can be difficult enough depending on the subject. But, when one is made to work in a place that can be noisy and disruptive like a shelter, teachers are lucky if the student puts pen to paper.
State records show Colorado’s homeless youth population has nearly tripled since 2007 despite decreases in poverty rates and unemployment.
The Colorado Department of Education (CDE) estimates that nearly 22,000 children attending school in Colorado are homeless, with just over 2,000 in the Denver Public School system alone.
That estimate might be low.
“Colorado ranks in the top ten states in terms of identifying homeless students,” Kerry Wrenick, State Coordinator for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth at CDE. “But, school districts have always had a tough time combatting the stereotypes of homelessness and getting students to understand that it’s okay to ask for help.”
Homelessness isn’t defined by whether someone camps under a bridge or holds a cardboard sign at a roadway intersections, Wrenick explains. Oftentimes homeless students live in shelters, transitional housing, or are doubled-up with another family due to economic hardship.
Colorado added more than 2,100 homeless families to its population between 2015 and 2016, the eighth largest spike nationally.
Urban Peak, one of Denver’s shelters for homeless students, houses up to 40 youths between the ages of 15 and 24 during an average school night.
“Imagine being 17 and trying to go to school after you’ve been staying with your best friend and you two get into as fight, and now their family can’t have you stay there anymore,” said Christina Carlson, chief executive officer of Urban Peak, a nonprofit that provides homeless youth with shelter services in Colorado Springs and Denver.
“There’s as much instability there as living on the streets.”
The seriousness of the homeless student problem can’t be understood numerically, Carlson argues. Most of the children at Urban Peak have very little contact with their family of origin. Outside of the shelter, some intentionally mask their problems because they face multiple layers of vulnerability.
“What we see are young people with family situations. Whether that’s because of abuse and neglect, or challenges surrounding their sexual orientation or gender identity creating family strife,” Carlson said.
“To oversimplify the issue, it’s all about poverty and the systemic issues associated with poverty. Family instability and housing instability both contribute to youths becoming homeless.”
Colorado’s median rental rate for a one bedroom apartment has risen 22.4 percent since 2014 and now sits at 12.6 percent above the national average, according to real estate website Apartmentlists.com.
The legal deck is also stacked against low-income tenants. A recent survey from real estate website RentCafe.com, ranked Colorado seventh worst in terms of how favorable landlord-tenant laws are toward tenants. Some of the criteria the survey examined were security deposits and habitability issues.
A renter can be evicted for being three days late on rent and have to wait two months before their security deposit is returned. State laws also give landlords the right to discriminate against a tenant’s income and reject those who use housing vouchers or Section 8.
To make matters worse for students, they often bear the burden of their parent’s mistakes. One small error can set a family’s entrance to the housing market back years.
“It’s unfortunate that our system guides a child’s future based on their parent’s actions. We have got to find a way to provide stability for these kids so they can graduate and have a shot at getting out of poverty,” Wrenick said.
School House Rock and a Hard Place
Public schools are often well equipped to provide social services for children experiencing homelessness. They offer warmth, food, medical attention, and a little learning for five days per week.
But, Colorado’s public schools are in a difficult situation when confronting student homelessness because many are underfunded, understaffed, and struggle to accommodate the required expenditures for homeless students under federal law.
Colorado’s schools receive funding through a combination of property taxes and other state revenues. In 2000, the state passed constitutional Amendment 23, which guarantees state revenues for school remaining one percent above the inflation rate.
An analysis of the legislation by Greater Education Colorado, a public education advocacy organization, argues that the amendment was reinterpreted in 2009 by the General Assembly in a way that allowed them to cut funding based on a “negative factor,” which allots only the base amount needed to cover expenses at schools such as keeping the lights on and the building maintained.
“Amendment 23 was not designed to fund schools ‘adequately.’ Rather, it was designed to reverse cuts imposed over a decade because of Colorado’s constitutional budget constraints, which are generally recognized as the most restrictive in the nation,” it reads.
“Factors” considered when determining district funding under Amendment 23 include how many at-risk students are in a district, the district’s size, and local cost-of-living.
The legislature’s negative factor approach has consistently cut funding to many school districts needing to address those factors. Since 2009, per pupil spending in the state has ballooned to over $1,000 below what inflation levels dictate under Amendment 23.
Without adequate state funds, Colorado schools are forced to stretch thin their resources provided under federal law by the McKinney-Vento Act.
McKinney-Vento guarantees homeless students the ability to attend their local public school and provides districts nationwide $85 million in grant funding for services such as transportation and free-and-reduced lunches. The funds are distributed based on the needs of each district, which spends their share as they see fit.
School districts in Denver have seen increases in McKinney-Vento funding, according to Wrenick. This is due to Denver Public Schools adding employees dedicated to identifying homeless students.
However, identifying more students decreases the amount of funds available per student state wide. A recent report by Colorado Politics shows that the state typically spends about $2,200 less per pupil than the national average of $11,762, ranking the state 39 out of 50.
Funding shortages often take a toll on student performance as well. Less than 80 percent of Colorado’s high school students graduate, the sixth-worst rate in the nation.
Average class sizes are around 26 students for teachers in departmentalized instruction, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. A recent study from HigherEd Colorado summarized that the state is in the midst of a teacher shortage and currently licenses half of its teachers from out of state.
With fewer qualified teachers to work in schools and diminished school funding, homeless students are almost left to fend for themselves in the classroom. Unfortunately, this means they don’t receive the attention or instruction they need to help keep pace with their peers.
National data from the Department of Education shows homeless children are twice as likely to have learning disabilities, act out in class with emotional disturbances, and switch schools at nearly twice the rate of other students. They are also nine times more likely to repeat a grade than their peers, according to estimates by the National Coalition for the Homeless.
According to Wrenick, who serves as Denver’s McKinney-Vento liaison, the elevation of the homeless student issue to a legislative level is a boon to improving the well-being of many DPS students facing homelessness.
“These kids need to be stable, so we can get them to graduation and get out of poverty,” Wrenick said. “Their parents may have made a bad choice before, but keeping the child in a stable situation is an upfront investment in their future success.”
But Wrenick recognizes that Colorado’s rising population may cause public school districts to be even more disadvantaged when it comes to helping students escape homelessness if public school funding continues to stagnate.
Some of these factors are contributing to the rise in alternative educational outlets, such as charter schools and online schools, around the state. Charter school enrollment grew 6.9 percent between 2016 and 2017 according to a report by ChalkBeat.com. Online schools grew by nearly two percent over the same time frame, and now service the educational needs of almost 20,000 students.
However, these schools are increasingly out of the reach of Colorado’s homeless students. Charter schools have rigorous requisite application requirements and performance-based objectives specified in their charter. Online schools require a stable connection to the internet which most homeless youths lack.
Without any definitive direction from the education system in Colorado, homeless students are placed in a state of semi-purgatory where their every decision leads them closer to chronic homelessness.
Where do we go from here?
Those who work closely with homeless students are divided on ways to solve the problem.
Some say it’s a social problem which requires a radical rethinking of poverty and homelessness in general. Others think that elevating the issue to the legislative level, or utilizing public-private partnerships are the best ways to fight it.
In either case, one strand seems to connect both solutions: creating support systems.
“These kids need access to the appropriate schools, trade schools or even higher education. That can have a big impact,” Carlson said.
Children suffering from homelessness oftentimes lack the skills to manage their anger, feel empathy, or resolve conflicts, according to an analysis by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
Urban Peaks offers some teens the ability to learn how to live in a community. Their housing initiatives have students living near case managers, though oftentimes in separate apartments. This helps the students learn independence, social skills, emotional intelligence, and how to build stable relationships.
“We need more people to take the time, sit down, and listen to the long conversation about poverty. Having the attention span to listen to and participate in the conversation, and having the mental dexterity to redefine homelessness is key,” Carlson said.
A basic starting point to stabilizing the lives of homeless students would be to stabilize Colorado’s housing market and make it more attainable for low-income families.
“Colorado is at a critical point with its housing market which is becoming less and less attainable for a greater percentage of families,” Wrenick said.
But doing so would require a policy-level discussion about student homelessness that is currently lackluster at best.
Colorado’s General Assembly recently passed HB18-1306, aimed at improving the educational stability for foster youth. The bill fuses federal law and state law by allowing foster students to stay in their school of origin even after they leave their care facility.
“Specifically, the bill removes barriers to obtaining a high school diploma by allowing education providers to waive course requirements or provide competency-based measures to satisfy graduation requirements,” the bill reads.
Another bill introduced during the 2018 session which would have created a task force for youth experiencing homelessness was defeated in the Senate.
These two bills were the only ones that directly identified homeless youth as the benefactors.
A bill addressing the systemic issues pertaining to student homelessness such as increasing per pupil funding (HB 18-1379) passed, but one which addresses reducing youth suicide rates (HB 18-1416) failed.
“Legislation often spells out and creates a space for homeless education. It gives extra support and rationale for school districts to deal with the problem while elevating the issue and concerns for solutions,” Wrenick said.
Another avenue for solutions Wrenick advocates is utilizing private-public partnerships to help homeless students receive their basic social needs.
While working as the McKinney-Vento liaison for Kansas City Public Schools, Wrenick collaborated with local mental health centers, elected officials, and civic groups to call attention to the homeless student problem in the city and help brainstorm solutions. Her district ended up cutting their homeless student population by 25 percent.
No matter which way one chooses to address the problem, one thing is clear: student homelessness is solvable as long as the community which supports the students takes the time and effort to come up with solutions. ■