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Bridges4Kids LogoCO Homeless Kids Find Haven in School Outreach Efforts
State's districts are struggling and getting creative to comply with a new law that expands the definition of 'homeless'.
by Monte Whaley and George Merritt, Denver Post, November 02, 2003
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Manuel Ramos almost cringes when he is told his three sons are considered homeless.

But the divorced 35-year-old is learning to appreciate the teachers, advocates and volunteers who now encircle his children to help ensure their education.

"I never thought being a single parent was this hard," said the burly Ramos.

He works as a roofer, and he and his sons recently moved in with his brother until he finds a permanent home.

Ramos says he is providing a roof over their heads.

But his sons are considered homeless under an expanded federal law that is spotlighting a population of youths who have been largely ignored by schools, agencies and most people, say officials.

The McKinney-Vento Act demands that kids with no fixed address - those who live in shelters, safe houses or in a relative's home - get the extra attention needed to keep them from dropping out of school.

School officials laud the act for trying to help previously overlooked kids succeed in school.

But the law also is driving up the number of reported homeless kids in Colorado and putting more pressure on strained school budgets to find and educate those children.

"It's tough," said Liz Murphy, homeless liaison for Denver Public Schools. "We want to do much more."

But the district is faced with a population of homeless students that has grown 31 percent in one year, while there was an increase of only $2,000 in federal funds to teach them, Murphy said.

About $353,200 in federal funds was distributed to roughly 13 school districts this year for homeless education, a boost of more than $11,000 from last year.

But the number of homeless youths in Colorado grew from 4,103 in October 2002 to 5,963 in May 2003, according to the Colorado Department of Education.

Who are the homeless?

Homeless advocates are sure there are thousands more out there. The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless estimates there are at least 2,000 school-age children in the Denver area alone who are considered homeless.

One big reason for the upswing is that the McKinney-Vento Act now says children don't have to be living on the streets to be considered homeless.

They also can be doubled up with friends or families, living in parks, motels, safe houses or camping areas, and be school-age parents living with friends.

"There is a lot of couch-surfing out there," said Margie Milenkiewicz, who is coordinating the state's effort to educate homeless kids.

Expanding the idea of who is homeless in Colorado and offering them more resources will help academic achievement, say school officials.

Fourteen percent of homeless children repeat a grade because they have to move to a new school, compared to 5 percent of other children, according to the Better Homes Fund, a public policy group that tracks the homeless problem.

Homeless children also are three times more likely to suffer emotional or behavioral problems than other children, the fund said.

The McKinney-Vento Act also requires all of Colorado's 178 school districts to have a homeless liaison on staff to help find homeless youths in their communities. Most liaisons already are working other jobs in the district but are taking on the extra responsibility.

Once children are identified as homeless, school districts must do a better job of getting them into classrooms, according to the law.

Homeless students can ask to be transported to the school they attended before their family became homeless. They also must be given access to the same tutoring, after-school programs and services offered to the non-homeless, said Milenkiewicz.

The law was broadened a year ago, but it is taking school districts time to grasp the implications, Milenkiewicz said.

"In some districts, they have been dealing with the homeless problem for so long, they already have programs in place," she said. "But in other communities, it's bringing the homeless into a new light.

"Now, a homeless student could be in a rural area," she added, "or even an area considered quite affluent."

Districts reach out for community help

Some districts are learning to cope by stretching resources, applying for grants, tapping into other federal funds and seeking help from churches, nonprofits, and even motels where many homeless live.

"More and more, we are saying, 'Talk to churches, the Kiwanis Club and others to get them involved,"' Milenkiewicz said.

The St. Vrain Valley School District is getting help from the First Evangelical Lutheran Church and Wal-Mart Vision Center to aid its 300 or so homeless kids.

Seven school districts in northern Colorado - which include the communities of Gilcrest, La Salle, Platteville, Eaton, Fort Lupton and Ault - are working with local health clinics, food and clothing banks and the Lions Club of La Salle to aid their homeless children.

There are about 130 homeless students in the Sheridan School District, but when winter hits, that number will jump by about 100, said Whitney Ice, a VISTA volunteer in the district.

The district works with families and teachers to accommodate the students. That can be anything from moving a family into transitional housing to providing bus passes or taxi vouchers so kids can get to school.

"We have a pretty unique population here," Ice said. "We try to work with each student on a case-by-case basis."

Jennifer Clayton, a fifth-grade teacher at Fort Logan Elementary in Sheridan, said identifying homeless students is now a huge part of her job.

"I think that when you work in a district like Sheridan, your whole job is recognizing the student's situation," she said. "A lot of the time, it is impossible not to see that a child is homeless."

Clayton said that in a district where homelessness and poverty are major issues - 85 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches - getting children to care about education is the biggest challenge.

"They have so many other things to worry about," she said. "For them, home may be a place where they share a room with nine people, and they get to sleep on a bed once every 10 days."

Homeless advocates with Denver Public Schools meet once a month with local agencies to keep tabs on homeless kids. They also go to local motels and homeless shelters to hand out informational posters about offered services that include tutoring and clothing stores, Murphy said.

Manuel Ramos learned his children could get after-school tutoring and a meal along with shoes, Murphy said.

DPS also bought uniforms for his boys - ages 9, 8 and 5 - so they could take karate lessons at the Clare Gardens recreation center.

Ramos is paying support to his ex-wife and legal fees. That, and the seasonal nature of roofing, destroyed his budget and forced him and his children to move in with his brother.

"We were doing OK," he said. "I paid rent and bills on time, but lately it's been kind of hard."

Moving back and forth between Colorado and their mother's home in Texas hurt his children's grades. But they have begun to stabilize at Brown Elementary, and the after-school activities are helping them succeed, Ramos said.

"They're catching up," Ramos said. "They're reading more and doing better. It's good."


The federal government has expanded the definition of a homeless student to not just mean someone living on the street. It also includes:

Those doubled up with friends or families.

Those staying in parks or camping areas.

School-age mothers staying with friends.

Runaway youths living without adult supervision or staying with friends.

Those staying in motels.

Those staying in safe houses because of domestic violence.

- Colorado Department of Education


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