At the end of the school day, the bell rings, children run out of the building, climb on the bus and head home where the comforts of family, possessions, security and routine await them.

But for thousands of children in the Baltimore County public school system, “home” may be the family car, a relative’s basement or even a homeless shelter. Usually through no fault of their own, some children are suddenly wrenched from their homes as a result of domestic violence, abuse or a parent losing a job leaving the family unable to pay the rent or mortgage. One out of every seven people in America today is a paycheck away from being homeless, according to HUD statistics. And 47 percent of adults are unable to come up with even $1,000 to cope with unexpected expenses such as medical bills, legal fees or household repairs.

Older students can leave their parents or the family to escape difficult situations and find some relief. But homelessness is traumatic for all children, especially young ones. And when you’re not sure where you’ll be sleeping at night, it’s hard to concentrate on reading, writing and arithmetic.

Enjoying low numbers

The most recent data from Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) gives the total number of identified homeless students as 2,520 as of May 2016. This is an improvement over last year (2,742) and the number has decreased since its height of 3,136 students identified as homeless in 2013-2014.

At Parkville High School, the number of homeless in May of 2015 was 101, the highest number for any school in Baltimore County. Other schools with significant numbers of homeless students include Dundalk Elementary School (79), Perry Hall High School (49), and Pleasant Plains Elementary (29).

The Third Councilmanic District (which extends from Timonium north to the state line including all of the Hereford Zone) has the fewest number of homeless students in the county with the schools in northern Baltimore County enjoying very low numbers.

Hereford High School has the most in The Zone with 10 homeless students, the same number as last year. Hereford Middle has five homeless students while some of the other elementary schools in the Hereford Zone have one or two homeless students.

Embarrassing, stressful

The qualification “identified” is important. The students self-identify as homeless though many don’t want to talk about it because it is too embarrassing and stressful.

The issue usually comes up when the Pupil Personnel Worker assigned to a school is notified of a home address that does not match one previously given. When asked why, the student or parent might indicate that he/she is now living in a house or apartment with another family member. If the relocation was because of economic hardship, the student is identified as homeless, i.e. lacking a “a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence,” as defined by Baltimore County Public Schools policy manuals.

As with hunger, school administrators and teachers often are on the front lines struggling to help students who are homeless. In one Third District school last year, donated funds were used to keep a family in a hotel and off the street on Christmas Eve.

The Teachers Association of Baltimore County (TABCO), the local teachers’ union, coordinates Kids Care which provides vouchers for clothing for students referred by guidance counselors and other school staff. Last year, the group helped nearly 400 students with more than $15,000 in vouchers for clothing. Ominously, as of October 2016, Kids Care already has spent $7,000.

Students helped through Kids Care usually are homeless but must demonstrate additional need as there is not enough funding to help the thousands of homeless students in the school system.

Nine year wait

After passage of the McKinney-Vento Act in 1987, local school systems were legally required to educate homeless students and provide them with additional services. Under the federal statute, students are defined as homeless if they are living with other family members as a result of economic hardship; if they are living in a shelter, motel or trailer park because no alternative housing is available; are awaiting foster care; or, are unaccompanied youth, i.e. those not under the care of a parent or guardian.

Because homeless students are at a greater risk of dropping out and not having enough to eat, students identified as homeless qualify for free and reduced price meals in schools and some other services provided by the school system.

On any given night, about 550 people are in Baltimore County homeless shelters with about one third of them children. The current waiting list for assisted housing in Baltimore County is more than 25,000 people resulting in a nine year wait, according to the Department of Planning.

According to a Baltimore Sun article last year, the shelters in Baltimore County will accept only adults or children with a parent or guardian; no shelters specifically target homeless, unaccompanied youth in Baltimore County. Young people ages 18-24 are understandably reluctant to stay in adult shelters.

No quiet place

As noted by Monica Butta, of the Church of Holy Comforter in Lutherville, “School staff have shared with us that homelessness has ramifications we often don’t think of including behavioral and learning problems for the students, child abuse, destabilization of the community, extreme anxiety and low self-esteem.

“Families with no permanent address are often ‘doubled up’ with host families and homeless families may be asked to move on at any time. In the move, children lose not only their sense of security but also tangible items such as clothing, toys and school supplies.”

Other issues for homeless students include anxiety over where they will sleep that night, the frequent need to make new friends and supports, lack of access to technology and no quiet place to do homework.

Also, a move may be to a different school district requiring the family to re-register a student usually after a prolonged interruption of a student’s education. The lack of continuity can cause a student to fall behind which may cause frustration, behavior problems, disciplinary action, truancy and dropping out.

Living with grandparents

In northern Baltimore County, May Polley, of the Hereford Food Bank, recently reported that thankfully no families served now are known to be homeless but there have been various cases in the not too distant past of people living in cars (including one living in a car in the Mt. Carmel Road Park and Ride).

Joan Patterson, of the Baltimore North Cluster Food Bank, which is currently providing 40 families a week with food, knows of several cases where children are living with grandparents because they cannot stay in their homes.

In these situations, if the children are in school, they are identified as homeless because they have lost their previous place to live because of hardship.

The North Cluster Food Bank does occasionally see homeless students, according to Patterson, including one a couple of years ago who kept his belongings on the porch of the church office and came for food.

Devastating effects

The effects of homelessness on academic performance are devastating: half of all children who are homeless are held back for one grade and the high school dropout rate is about four-and-a-half times higher for homeless students than for their higher income peers.

In 2014, the high school graduation rate in Baltimore County was about 80 percent. Improving access to stable housing could greatly improve this number and save on the high social costs of disconnected youth between the ages of 17 and 24, i.e. those without employment and not in school.

Though the number of identified homeless adults and children in Baltimore County has decreased slightly as the economy improves, the high costs of housing here will continue to put many low-income families at risk of homelessness. Families living near the federal poverty level have an annual income that is less than half of what is considered enough to afford renting a two-bedroom apartment in Maryland.

For young people in particular, long-term strategies should include: better support and training for graduating high school seniors; enhanced job training and housing support for disconnected youth; and, in the opinion of this writer, passage of the Home Act in Baltimore County.

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Dr. Laurie Taylor-Mitchell is a retired professor of art history at Hood College and was a 2014 Democratic candidate for County Council in the Third District. She now does research and advocacy on educational and environmental issues. Please send questions or comments to Ltmitchell4@comcast.net