Homeless kids are economic refugees in a rich land

The plight of Kentucky’s homeless children — more than 30,000 counted by public schools — should shock the conscience.

Government at all levels can make policy and budget changes to better serve these youngsters.

But getting at the root causes — the economic inequality, loss of jobs and resulting personal and social dysfunction — is more complicated — though no less urgent: A rich nation that abandons so many children to scrounge for a bed and something to eat can expect to pay a high price in the future.

Despite above-average home ownership, Kentucky has the highest percentage of homeless students of any state, about 5 percent, according to data from 2012-13, the latest available.

In eastern Kentucky, as the Herald-Leader’s Beth Musgrave recently reported, five school districts classify more than 1 in 5 of their students as homeless. These youngsters are America’s internal refugees, cast out by an economy that is passing their mountain homeland by.

Kentucky’s 30,000 homeless students are enough to rank among the state’s dozen most populous cities and make up the third-largest school district.

Abandoned by drug-addicted parents, youngsters who sleep on couches and live with friends and other family members are among those counted by schools as homeless.

In other cases, parents and children discover that the safety net does not accommodate two-adult families, or that there is no safety net where they live, so they end up living in cars or campers or doubling up with relatives or friends in situations that are often less than safe.

Such conditions force youngsters to move often, as landlords or relatives object to the crowding.

What does living in such uprooted circumstances do to a child? Nothing good, judging by their grades and test scores.

Fayette County Public Schools has no full-time homeless education coordinator, despite enrolling about 750 students who lack permanent shelter.

Every district is required to designate a homeless education liaison or coordinator, a position key to helping youngsters stay safely housed and connecting them with needed services. But only four — Jefferson, Jessamine, Greenup and Pike — make the position full-time.

Stronger support for homeless children is one obvious way to narrow FCPS’ achievement gap. Also, the state’s new compulsory attendance age of 18 will demand more services for teens who lack permanent shelter.

Lexington is moving to fill the gap that forces families to split up to receive emergency housing. The Office of Homelessness Prevention and Intervention has set aside $100,000 for two years and is seeking proposals, which are expected to take the form of vouchers for hotels or apartments until the family can qualify for permanent housing aid.

Lexington also has made a substantial commitment to increasing its stock of affordable housing.

One in four of Lexington’s 41,000 minimum-wage workers have a child, so the council’s move to increase the minimum wage will help stabilize families.

One big unfilled need: temporary aid to help families caught in financial emergencies avoid eviction.

At the federal level, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which disburses homeless aid to states, must open up eligibility to include more than just people who have lived in shelters or on the street. HUD’s estimate of homeless children is far below the Department of Education’s count. That’s because families go to great and even dangerous lengths to avoid or conceal their homelessness.

In rural Kentucky — where the population is more dispersed and there is no public transportation and little decent rental housing — the challenges are even greater.

Hammered by drug abuse and the loss of coal-industry jobs, the mountains can’t afford to lose a generation, and the youngsters who are fending for themselves right now can’t wait for long-term economic solutions.

Lexington Herald-Leader

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