By Montana Samuels | email@example.com
The five-year spike of homeless students enrolling in St. Johns County schools has begun to taper off, but some experts fear the trend won’t last.
“I think the numbers can and will go up,” says Kassy Guy-Johanessen, director of development at Home Again St. Johns, a non-profit group that assists the homeless.
One missed paycheck is all it takes to plunge some families into homelessness, she says. A lack of affordable housing, minimum-wage salaries and the high cost of child care makes them especially vulnerable.
In 2014-’15, the St. Johns County School District enrolled 809 students who were classified as homeless, a slight increase over 803 students in the 2013-’14 school year.
Only 149 students were flagged as homeless in 2008-’09. The numbers increased steadily after that before hitting a plateau this year.
Chris Stone, homeless liaison for St. Johns County Schools, said the increases in homeless students were drastic, rising by 30 percent at one point. But he said that could be simply because the county is more effective in identifying the homeless.
“In the 2008-’09 school year it was around 80 kids,” says Stone. “Last year (2014-’15) we identified 809. The year before that 803. So I think the huge increases were No. 1, reflective of what was happening in our community, but No. 2, we had just started getting a real good read on what was going on.”
As school district employees do a better job identifying homeless students, they have become more effective in finding help for them.
“All of our Principals, APs (Assistant Principals), bus drivers, and food service workers are all aware of the program and how to get people resources,” says Stone.
Social service agencies say they are assisting rising numbers of homeless students.
Mary Kelley Kryzwick, director of the St. Augustine Regional Office of Catholic Charities, says she has seen increased enrollment in the agency’s programs.
“We’ve committed to 200 children,” says Kryzwick. “I think we’re up to about 180 (children) at Sebastian Middle School.”
She’s referring to the Weekend Hunger Backpack Program, which is operated for kids at Sebastian Middle School who receive free and reduced lunch during the week.
“We provide food to these children who would otherwise go hungry on the weekend,” says Kryzwick. “On the Thanksgiving holiday, they’ll have four days off, so they’ll have enough food for four days. We’re not talking about big meals, but they’ll have enough to sustain them.”
With the success the of the Weekend Hunger Backpack Program, Catholic Charities is expanding outside of St. Johns County and looking to aid other children in need, particularly in Putnam County, home to some of the poorest families in northeast Florida.
Some of the wealthiest families in the northeast Florida live in St. Johns County and some of the poorest are in Putnam County.
Guy-Johanessen says she’s seen an increase in young families taking part in Dining with Dignity, her agency’s meals program for the homeless in St. Augustine.
“What I’m seeing is we have more families with children coming,” she says. “But some of them aren’t necessarily school age.”
Ben Wilson and his dog Sparky stopped by Dining with Dignity on a recent afternoon.
“We come to eat dinner and get a meal in us before we go out all night playing guitar,” said Wilson. “I’ve been with Sparky for two years now. I just put an ad on Craigslist and ended up finding him. He’s a good dog.”
Guy-Johanessen fears that the homeless situation will worsen. Affordable housing is hard to find and there is no sign that rents are dropping, she says.
Stone says other factors should be taken into account.
“Homelessness has always been an issue for communities,” he said. “I think it’s always going to be a factor in kid’s education. The best thing that we can do is make certain that if they wind up in that situation that we’ve got school staff, educators, and community members aware of what kind of resources are out there.”
Unfortunately, parents earning low wages and trying to cope with rising costs of living will forever teeter on the brink of homelessness.
Providing low rent won’t reduce homelessness unless the root causes of the problem are addressed, Stone says.
What’s vital, he says, is that residents know that programs to help the homeless exist.
“You can have the best product ever, but if nobody’s coming to receive it from you, how effective is it?” Stone says. “There are always going to be people out there that we can’t capture and can’t identify. There will always be a kid out there, and it’s unfortunate, but that will go missed throughout the school year due to some circumstance, but I think we’re doing better than what we’ve done in the past.”