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The Houston Independent School District also employs just two caseworkers to oversee its homeless student population, estimated at 4,500. This figure is somewhat deceptive since about half are Katrina and Rita evacuees who remain classified as homeless even if they have found stable housing. HISD receives $225,000 a year in federal grants for its homeless population, which amounts to $50 per child, to cover everything from school supplies to clothes, bus tokens, field trips and brochures advertising services. The funding falls far short, leading some teachers and counselors to dip into their own wallets. "It is overwhelming," says Marsha Jones, an HISD social worker for 13 years. "Kids cannot concentrate academically if the most basic needs are not met. We do the bare minimum."
But even this is better than what goes on in Fort Bend, where the school systems are widely perceived as affluent and free of the problems generally associated with inner cities. And that false perception creates the biggest barrier to helping suburban at-risk kids. "Some out here feel there's no need for social-work services, like we don't have problems," says Paulette Bray, a social worker at FBISD. Bray and others warn that unless there are funding increases for social-service programs, the problems will intensify as the school districts carry out their ambitious expansion plans. FBISD, for instance, plans to add 20 schools and 32,000 students by 2015. Katy ISD will grow by 25 schools and 38,000 students during the same period.
Joan Arasteh, who has worked with at-risk kids in KISD for 15 years, scribbles on her desk calendar the name of every troubled teen referred to her office. Some months have more than 500 names. So far this school year Arasteh has received 3,320 referrals, which she says more accurately represents the at-risk population than the 100 or so that the school district officially classifies as homeless. "The district's numbers don't accurately reflect the situation," she says. "We come across at-risk kids on a daily basis, and there are tons more we don't even know about."
Identifying homeless teens can be challenging since many are too embarrassed by their situation to seek help or fear they will be returned to unsafe family environments. Some kids resort to couch-surfing or squatting in abandoned buildings while others have been known to sleep overnight on school property in student equipment rooms or sports stadiums, according to Karen Jennings, homeless liaison for 11 years at FBISD. "They don't have anywhere out here to go," Jennings says. "We have nowhere to send them."
According to Steinberg, Fort Bend County's mantra regarding homeless youths has been to ship them off to Houston. But there's no public transportation linking the two counties, and Houston's shelters are frequently filled to capacity. Still, some suburban teens find their way to Covenant House Texas, the city's lone emergency shelter for unaccompanied youths, located in Montrose. "Katy kids always stick out with their nice backpacks, neatly packed," says executive director Ronda Robinson, who works in Houston and lives in Missouri City. "They don't have a clue when they get out here."
There's no guarantee teens will be admitted for the typical 30-day stay since Covenant House requires parental consent to enter its shelter. An exception is made only if the minor alleges abuse, in which case a call is made to Children's Protective Services. School districts likewise do not contact CPS unless the student is of elementary school age or alleges abuse. It's an unspoken rule that CPS considers teenagers even as young as 13 able to care for themselves, according to Roderick Martin, a ten-year veteran social worker at FBISD. "There has to be an injury to the head or sexual abuse," Martin says, "or CPS is not gonna do anything."
The federal government encourages school districts to undergo sensitivity training for all employees, including bus drivers, who pick up homeless kids from shelters first and drop them off last to protect their privacy. A 2004 U.S. Department of Education report advises: "If a district does implement a supplemental program exclusively for homeless children, such as a shelter-based evening tutoring program, it should not be called 'the homeless tutoring program' or the 'shelter tutoring program.' Instead, the district should use a name such as 'Discovery Club' or 'Homework Club' to avoid stigmatization."
This is taken a step further in the Katy district, where social workers are known as "student support specialists" and at-risk counselors are called "academic achievement specialists."
Yet all this sensitivity doesn't always translate to the classroom. Often, Bray says, it's the teachers who resist most strenuously when asked to help homeless students. Some chide the students for sleeping through class though the teens may have spent the night outdoors. "I hear teachers say it all the time," Bray says. "'Homeless? He don't look it.'"
Michael Lyddon is a big, strong, athletic kid. He stands 6'1" and weighs 187 pounds. The school's football coach asked him to join the team but he declined. Michael's laugh is really more of a roar. He smiles a ton, especially when he talks about what he has been through. He's easygoing because that's who he is. But it's also a survival tactic he has learned. After all, he can't afford to offend the small, loyal army of counselors, teachers, administrators, parents and friends that help him each day.