The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Local homeless population includes more than 850 schoolchildren
BY AMY FLOWERS UMBLE
Area social services agencies have made great strides in getting the chronically homeless off the streets and into housing.
But the number of children without fixed addresses has risen dramatically.
On Jan. 26, five Fredericksburg-area school districts counted 856 students who lack permanent homes.
School social workers and two directors of homeless-service programs talked about the rising numbers, the causes of homelessness and how to serve these children and their families.
There is no typical homeless student. Some live in cramped motel rooms with family. Others bunk on the couches of friends. One Spotsylvania County family lives in a shed. Some teens live in tents. And some live in the regional homeless shelter.
Many of the older teens are on their own, supporting themselves and trying to navigate a grown-up world that has come all too fast.
And the social workers said that they’re trying to keep up with a problem that is multiplying faster than the solutions.
“We have the urban problems of Fairfax and Prince William without the urban services,” said Maarja Bracero, homelessness case manager for Stafford County public schools.
In Stafford, 260 students have been identified as homeless so far this year. Under U.S. Department of Education guidelines, this means they lack fixed, permanent homes. They include students living in motels, doubled up with friends or relatives, in a shelter or in any other place not meant to be a home.
In Spotsylvania, schools have identified 497 homeless students, a dramatic increase over last year.
Social workers scramble to keep up and to provide the basic services to help students stay in school and do well academically.
For many students, that means providing the most basic items such as food, personal-hygiene items and clothing.
“After meeting their basic needs and establishing a baseline where they know they can eat, they know they can have a warm coat, then you start working on the things that are really important,” Bracero said.
The panel agreed that community awareness is the key to serving homeless children.
Michelle Patton, homelessness case manager for Spotsylvania schools, said that the community has been very supportive.
She said that a county resident decided to throw himself a birthday party and charge admission, with all of the proceeds going to support homeless children in Spotsylvania schools.
Two of the area’s homelessness agencies have also seen more youths coming for help.
At the Thurman Brisben Center, families are often part of the homeless shelter’s population. But more high school students have been showing up by themselves, said Director Bunny Melzer.
The shelter can’t accept any residents under 18, but some high school students who are 18 or older have stayed there.
Micah Ecumenical Ministries mostly helps the chronically homeless. Three years ago, that usually meant someone about 60 years old who had lived on the streets for a long time.
Now they’re seeing more and more people in their late teens and early 20s, said Micah Director Meghann Cotter. Many have aged out of foster care; others get kicked out of their homes as soon as they turn 18.
Often they’ve spent only a night or two on their own before they come through Micah’s doors.
“For us, it becomes more of a race, because we know where that can go,” Cotter said.
Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973