Seeking Shelter/Seeking Solutions: The homeless students of Anchorage

Seeking Shelter/Seeking Solutions: The homeless students of Anchorage
Published: Aug. 31, 2023 at 6:32 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The first call starts before sunrise. Kim Pevy, a dispatcher at Alaska Yellow Cab, slides a headset over her brown curls.

The driver on the other end is having an issue with a young girl crying in the back of his cab.

“Put me on speakerphone,” Pevy said.

A tiny whimper can be heard as a little girl laments having to sit in the middle seat, again, while her sister takes the window seat.

“Tomorrow I promise you get to sit by the window,” Pevy said.

With that promise the sisters put on their seatbelts and the taxi driver takes them to school.

“You got a booster seat, right,” Pevy questions the next driver calling in.

He does.

Another student goes to school driven in a taxi.

Every morning, in Anchorage, as the sun begins to rise, and the school day begins, dozens of taxis fan out across the city to pick up children and to give them a ride to school.

It’s part of the Child in Transition Program, which is required by the federal government for local districts to ensure homeless students have the same opportunities as everyone else in school.

“We always say ‘one student, one school, one year,’” said David Mayo-Kiely, the homeless liaison for the Anchorage School District.

On the first day of school, 90 students took taxi rides to school and that number is expected to increase as the school year progresses and the district identifies new homeless students.

The rides are part of an effort to ensure that children, who are homeless or in temporary housing, or inconsistent homes, can remain at one school.

“We do have the obligation to provide that service and it’s kind of the most cost-effective way to do it even though some people are like ‘really?’” Mayo-Kiely said.

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a federal program, requires school districts across the country to ensure children experiencing homelessness receive an education.

Mayo-Kiely says ASD defines homelessness as, “you must be literally homeless, so on the street, sleeping on a green belt, in a car, in a homeless shelter, those types of situations,” Mayo-Kiely said. “Our definition is much broader. It also includes, it includes those, but also families that are doubled-up or staying in motels, if they’ve lost their housing and can’t afford a place of their own. It also includes unaccompanied youth.”

Before school began in Anchorage, 30 students were living at Clare House and 60 children were living with their parents at McKinnell House.

Both provide emergency shelter for homeless families.

Covenant House Alaska, which shelters homeless children, reports it housed 898 individual youths in Alaska last year.

ASD says despite its efforts to reach all school-aged children it knows some have slipped through the cracks especially when COVID meant students stopped attending classes in person and switched to online learning.

“We know we’re missing kids. We know that there’s families, for whatever reason, don’t call us and I don’t have an estimate for what that would be, but we try as best we can,” Mayo-Kiely said.

He also says there were 1,900 homeless students enrolled in ASD last year.

That number, Mayo-Kiely said, is probably higher now.

“We have had a number of families that have been sort of checked out kind of post COVID, sort of lost touch with the school during the online portion, and we’ve done a lot of work over the years to try to reconnect with those families,” Mayo-Kiely said.

During the school registration process, caregivers are asked if they’ve had stable homes for the past few months. That requires a person to voluntarily disclose information. The other way to find children or teens, if they aren’t registered for school, is through places like Covenant House or other shelters.

ASD says it relies on its community partners to help find homeless students.

Additionally, community resources officers from the Anchorage Police Department stop by last known addresses to see why someone hasn’t been to class or the district will text or call a student with a last known number listed in their records.

Students can miss no more than 17 days of school per year. That is less than two absences per month.

The municipal prosecutor’s office says it could only find two cases of truancy in its system. One was in 2015 and a second in 2016.

Disappearing students are a problem school districts face across the country.

In the 2020–2021 school year, around 1.1 million public school students, or 2.2% of all enrolled students, were identified as experiencing homelessness, according to the Department of Education, which tracks children and youth homelessness through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Youths experiencing unstable housing face higher risks for poor physical, mental, and sexual health outcomes and increased risk for suicide compared with their peers experiencing stable housing. In addition, youths of color and sexual minority youths are disproportionately more likely to experience homelessness.”

The CDC also reports that in 2021, 2.7% of U.S. high school students experienced unstable housing.

“Being a child of parents who were addicts at the time, we moved around a lot,” said Denice Delgado, who was once a homeless child herself and now runs the Salvation Army’s social services division. “Like I was telling you that we moved around, my parents were the dealers of the neighborhood, and we would move around as people were starting to get busted in order to make sure that they didn’t get caught, we moved from place to place.”

She says stability is the key to success for children.

“Honestly, it comes down to the parents, or the guardians, or whoever has custodianship over them. It’s if they aren’t in a good place to help provide that oversight, to make sure that their kids are going to school, then they’re not,” Delgado said.

ASD reports that increased enrollment and attendance is key to educational success and to breaking the cycle of homelessness.

“We did worry about them,” Mayo-Kiely. “We did a huge effort right in March of 2020 of trying to contact all of our families to say, ‘where are you, where are you staying?’”