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PJC Attorney Attests to the Increase in Homelessness of School Children

The following article appeared in the new online newspaper Investigative Voice about the increase in homelessness among families with children in Maryland.  Laurie Norris, a PJC Staff Attorney, is quoted in the article.
ON THE STREET - Homelessness doubles for school kids in Baltimore
Monday, 16 March 2009 08:08
By Melody Simmons

At night, her six children -- ranging from four months to 16 -- double up to sleep in her great grandmother’s small row house in Baltimore’s Edmondson Village. With no room left, her husband sleeps outside in the car.

After their home in Westminster was foreclosed on and they were evicted in July, this newly homeless family – one of thousands in the metro area– has roamed like nomads, crashing in shelters, hotels and relatives' homes.

“Right now, we are staying wherever,” said Mrs. W., who did not want to be identified by her full name because the homelessness has left her family humiliated. “The situation with my grandmother is bad because there are too many of us. They don’t want us to live here. They are elderly and sickly. It’s almost like borderline abusive.”

The family is not alone. As the recession grinds on, lower and middle class families in the Baltimore metro area are losing jobs and housing at a dizzying pace, according to experts on homelessness.

The emergency hits just more than a year after Mayor Sheila Dixon pledged to end homelessness in Baltimore over a 10-year period. The city is receiving help from a $9.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to develop emergency homeless shelters as part of the federal stimulus plan signed by President Obama late last month. In addition, Baltimore also will receive $21.5 million from HUD to fund homeless services over the next fiscal year.

The funds will be welcomed by advocates who are witnessing the crisis deepen, especially impacting children. School districts report that the number of homeless students is often double last year’s figures.

“I’ve been shocked in the last year to see multiple homeless families living in unfinished damp, dark basements,” said Laurie Norris, a staff attorney at the Public Justice Center in Baltimore, citing Prince George’s County, Baltimore City and Baltimore County as areas where affordable rental housing is scarce. “It’s the thing to do these days -- the only thing marginally affordable.”

City school officials said the census of homeless students has doubled since last year. This year, there are 1,200 homeless children identified in city schools, said Louise Fink, head of interagency support at the school's system's North Avenue headquarters.

And that’s a conservative number.

“It’s the tip of the iceberg,” Fink said. “People do not like to admit they are homeless. I think the true numbers are higher than we are reporting. A lot of people are doubled up, staying in different houses each week, living precipitously and still they don’t consider themselves homeless.”

In Baltimore County schools, 1,130 homeless students were identified in January after the first semester, said Norris, who received the figures as part of a consent decree. That figure is well over last year’s total of 1,300 for the entire year, she said. During the 2007-08 school year, Prince George’s County schools reported 2,162 homeless students -- the highest number in Maryland, statistics from the Maryland State Board of Education show. Other school districts with high numbers are Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Wicomico counties.

The state’s total population of homeless students in the 2007-08 school year was 8,813.

This year in Prince George's County, there are 2,000 homeless students already identified, said Denise Ross, supervisor of the county schools homeless education office. With that current rate, Ross said she expects the county to identify a total of up to 2,300 homeless students at the end of the school year in June. The system's total enrollment is 133,000.

"We are definitely seeing, hearing and feeling what's happening with the economy," Ross said, of the homeless students, who receive vouchers for uniforms and clothing from a federal grant. "We are keeping up with the demand, but it is really tough. People are calling our office asking if we have any money for rent and for past-due electric bills. People are just desperate."

The McKinney-Vento Act, a federal law, mandates that homeless children be allowed to remain in their schools, despite having to relocate during the school year to another district. Local districts must pay for transportation to and from those schools, whether it is by taxi, bus, or school-based transportation. Those costs are going up, too, for local school districts, Fink said.

Local school-based workers are witnessing the crisis unfold.

“I’ve gone into two-bedroom apartments where 10 people are living there,” said a counselor in a west Anne Arundel elementary school who asked to remain anonymous to protect her students. “The impact on kids is great. Their parents know they might not be home to help with homework, the kids might be dropped off at their grandmother's and picked up late, and it’s hard for parents to take off in the middle of the day for teacher conferences.”

A report card issued last week by the National Center for Family Homelessness found that one in 50 U.S. children – a total of 1.5 million -- are homeless each year (http://www.homelesschildrenamerica.org ). Maryland ranked 18th in the United.S. when four factors were considered: overall child well-being, extent of child homelessness, risk for child homelessness and state policy and planning.

Betty Schulz, a pediatric nurse practitioner who treats homeless children in Baltimore city at Mercy Medical Center and at various shelters in the city for Health Care for the Homeless, said she sees the problem spinning out of control as the economic situation worsens.

There is no easy solution, she said, because city shelters and transitional housing units are at constant capacity. In the meantime, she treats hundreds of homeless youth.

“The impact is that the homeless children’s health is worse than children who are living in poverty,” Schulz said. “Asthma is a big problem. Gastrointestinal problems, upper respiratory problems and skin problems are three of the biggest things we see. And the mental and behavioral health of the kids is very serious. They are depressed, they are coming in with very serious mental health diagnoses like bipolar disorder, depression and suicidal ideations. They are acting out and have violent behaviors. They are getting suspended from school because of their behaviors.”

Anxiety is a problem Mrs. W., 33, has detected within her family. They live daily on the fly: She wakes her children early in order to get them to their schools in Owings Mills. Their clothing is tossed in large trash bags piled in their grandmother’s dining room. Other possessions are in storage. They often eat meals in fast food restaurants.

Her husband, a 32-year-old electrician, is not working much because job contracts have slowed to a nearly non-existent pace. “My kids feel like they would sacrifice everything to find a place to live,” she said. “It’s really stressful.”

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