Lynn Mastrianni, the homeless liaison for Schuylerville Central School District, tries not to use the word homeless. Instead, she refers to families facing these issues as displaced. She said it helps ease the emotional toll or stigma of the situation, which is oftentimes what prevents families from seeking the help they need.
“Many times families are unaware of their options for keeping children in school, and that’s where I come in,” Mastrianni said.
According to the New York State Education Department, there has been a 14 percent increase this year in the number of families forced to leave their homes.
The McKinney-Vento Act defines homelessness as sharing housing of other persons due to loss of housing. The definition goes on to include families living in motels or on camping grounds due to the lack of alternative adequate accommodations. Being homeless does not always mean living in a homeless shelter or on the street.
“More people fall under the McKinney-Vento legislation than we know,” Mastrianni said. “People can be ashamed to admit their situation.”
For a child who has been displaced from their home, staying in the same school and classroom offers comfort and stability through what can be a long period of extreme stress.
Children who are temporarily residing outside of their school district have the right to choose either to continue attending their original school or enroll tuition-free in the public school at their current location. Every school district has a homeless liaison that works with families to coordinate services and ensure the best possible outcome.
Like Mastrianni, these liaisons connect the family with additional services, such as free or reduced price lunches, food pantries or the Department of Social Services.
But before the liaison can help, someone must first identify the problem and speak up. In most cases, it’s not the child or parent that does so. In fact, Mastrianni said teachers are often the first to recognize a problem and refer a family in need.
Dawn Howk, a counselor for Ballston Spa middle and high schools, is currently working with 79 families. She said she is finding an increased number of students who have been “displaced,” and that teachers are often the ones to identify the problem.
Many warning signs and indicators are behavioral: a child may appear anxious or irritable, perhaps due to hunger or lack of sleep. Another red flag includes ill preparation– maybe the child has stopped bringing their books or a lunch to school or appears inappropriately dressed for the weather. Inadequate nutrition can also be a factor, even for families that are receiving help from social services. If the family is placed in a motel, they may not have access to healthy meals, which, according to Howk, affects a child’s ability to stay focused and learn.
Schuylerville kindergarten teacher Lisa Schwartz said she and her fellow elementary teachers keep snacks in their room for kids who seem to have trouble concentrating because they are hungry.
“I’ll take them aside and ask if they had breakfast this morning,” Schwartz said.
Andy Gilpin, director of program services at CAPTAIN Youth and Family Services, agrees that there has definitely been a drastic increase in the number of families forced to double up with another household.
CAPTAIN provides support to teens and young adults in Saratoga County and surrounding areas. In addition to their 30-day emergency shelter, CAPTAIN offers an Aftercare Program, which keeps youth in crisis connected to a support network of caring adults. Other services include an emergency food pantry, which serves primarily southern Saratoga County.
Gilpin stated that in 2010, the food pantry served 600 families; as of September 30 this year, the number has jumped to 891.
“We’ve seen an average of 120 families each month,” said Gilpin, “and expect to have served over 1,000 families by the end of 2011.”
CAPTAIN serves teens age 13 and older. Unfortunately, Gilpin said, there are few services available specifically for elementary-aged children. When approached by a family with young children, a referral is made to the County Department of Social Services, which will likely place the family in a motel. “There is definitely a gap in services,” said Gilpin. “Families with young children have few options right now.”
While CAPTAIN is known for helping runaway and at-risk youth, Gilpin said there has been a steady increase in teens who seek help because the entire family is homeless. When their family is doubled up with another household, teens often try to remove themselves from a crisis situation, which allows case workers to intervene and help stabilize the situation.
“The shelter is a low-stress environment,” said Gilpin, explaining that CAPTAIN provides meals, structured activities and the support of caring adults.
While CAPTAIN’s services are primarily directed toward the youth in crisis, they often also help the entire family by addressing the underlying issues that led to homelessness.
“The hardest part is accepting the situation,” said Gilpin. “Families who are struggling financially may need to seek affordable housing before things get worse.” Often, he said, people will try to hang onto an unsustainable lifestyle until the family is in full-blown crisis.
“When you’re used to a certain lifestyle, it’s hard to acknowledge the current situation,” Gilpin said.
It can be hard to get past the mindset of failure to find the resources they need to move on. Seeking help before homelessness, when displacement is imminent, can save a family from the stress of an emergency.
“Once the housing is lost, it is extremely hard for a family to recover,” Gilpin said.
The added stress of going to the Department of Social Services, filling out forms and navigating the process of asking for help can be very daunting. They may be living with various family members, moving around with no permanent address. It can also be difficult for people facing homelessness to acknowledge their own need.
Fortunately, Mastrianni said she has started to see an increase in direct contact from families looking for information and assistance. But even that’s open to interpretation – is it a sign families are becoming more open to accepting help or that there is a greater number of families in need?
More information on the McKinney-Vento act can be found at www.nysteachs.org. For more information on helping children in your school or community deal with homelessness, please contact CAPTAIN Youth and Family Services at http://www.captainyfs.com.
Michelle Read DeGarmo has been working in the human services field for 16 years. She currently works with Marvin & Company Community Revitalization, a local consulting firm that helps rural municipalities administer affordable housing programs. Look for DeGarmo’s article in next week’s edition of Saratoga TODAY.