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Homeless in Suburbia

As more suburban students face homelessness, schools have a crucial role to play in ensuring their safety and fair treatment.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Lee Prince | Shutterstock.com

 

In Denver’s western suburbs, a social studies teacher thought up a novel approach to teaching her students the unsettling realities of urban homelessness. She assigned them the task of sleeping overnight in the backseat of the family car.

But the assignment held a surprise in store for the teacher—one that provides a glimpse into the reality of 21st-century poverty in America. The teacher did not realize that one of her students was homeless. The girl had already spent many nights in her parents’ car.

“These days in suburbia, you never know who you will have in your class,” says Sheree Conyers, homeless liaison for the Jeffco Public Schools of Jefferson County, Colorado. “These are hard times. So many of our families are in transition.”

A decade ago, the Jeffco Schools had just 59 homeless students in a district that serves about 86,000 students. By 2012, there were close to 3,000, representing 3 percent of the district enrollments. At Parr Elementary School, 28 percent of the students were homeless, according to a 2012 report.

The increasing poverty in Jefferson County, where close to one in three students qualifies for free and reduced  price lunch, reflects the explosion of poverty in suburbs nationwide. Throughout the 2000s, the suburbs were home to the largest and fastest-growing poor population in the nation, according to a 2011 analysis of U.S. Census data by the Brookings Institution. From 2000 to 2010, the report also says, poverty grew by 53 percent in the nation’s suburbs. 

This rapid change has left many educators behind. They are still teaching as if the suburbs have remained immune from the poverty that has long troubled urban areas, says M.J. Lechner, a University of Colorado-Denver professor who oversees seven student teachers at Parr. “Some teachers have been responsive [to the changes],” she says, “while others are still struggling to give up the notion that all kids are the same as they were 10 years ago.”

A Poorly Defined Problem

The explosion in suburban poverty is part of a larger, more disturbing trend. Childhood poverty nationwide is at its highest point since 1993, with 16.5 million, or 22 percent of children ages 18 and under living in poor families, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Race is still a factor. For African-American children, the poverty rate was 38 percent; for Latino children, it was 32 percent. 

Being classified as “poor” means that a family of four earns no more than $22,314. However, the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University estimates that families typically need twice that income to cover their basic needs. That looser definition puts 44 percent of American children in low-income families.

The growth in suburban poverty has had a major impact on suburban schools, like those near Denver. Without the safety net of social services that city governments provide for the urban poor, suburban schools have had to scramble to set up programs that address basic needs, such as adequate food and clothing, for their students from low-income families.

The Jeffco district has established school-based food banks and an emergency fund for health needs, such as eyeglasses or medication. It also has held clothing drives at schools with large homeless populations. Schools feed students free or low-cost meals during the week, but not on the weekends. So 13 Jeffco schools have partnered with community sponsors and local food banks to provide food for the weekends.

At Parr, school officials have even altered the curriculum to accommodate homeless students. But some teachers have not adjusted to the new reality. “If a student has neither the place nor the tools with which to complete tasks sent home, they are often reprimanded or punished by missing recess,” Lechner says. “This makes our homeless population feel even more singled out and ostracized.”

 
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