A homeless family with at least one student enrolled in a Lewiston school recently needed help finding someplace safe and warm to stay for the night.
Cynthia Nunez, a social worker with the Lewiston School District, stepped in to help the family find a place to lay their heads, at least temporarily.
“With no other resources available, she was able to access some funds to find a motel,” said Jennifer Wallace, another social worker with the district. “We have all worked with similar situations or worse, like families living in their cars.”
To help bring awareness to student and family homelessness, the Lewiston and Clarkston school districts formed a partnership to bring a spirit week-like event to their schools.
This week, students have participated in the themes of the day, like “rock your socks” and “keep it warm Wednesday.” As the kids display their school spirit, they are also encouraged to donate a pair of socks to a student in need, or bring warm clothing items like mittens, coats or blankets.
Over the course of the school year, the Lewiston School District identifies “well over” 100 students as homeless, while numbers in the Clarkston School District appear to be higher.
Four years ago, 185 students were identified as homeless in Clarkston, while the most recent numbers put the amount of homeless students at 130. But officials from both districts said pinpointing the exact number of homeless students is difficult because students and families don’t always come forward.
While the numbers tend to ebb and flow, the needs continue to increase, according to Rebecca Lockhart, the executive director of student services in the Clarkston School District.
“Homelessness is here and it’s growing in the valley,” said Jil Taylor, a social worker in Clarkston.
The social workers in both districts work to connect homeless students and their families with in-house and outside agencies that can help meet their needs. Under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, students are deemed homeless if they “lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” That includes those who live in motels, or cars, as well as children who “double up” at the homes of friends and family members.
The partnership expands the collaboration between the two districts to try to spread resources even further, the social workers said.
“With the homeless population that we serve in our schools, oftentimes our families end up on the other side of the river, so we are trying to support them regardless of where they are,” Taylor said.
Nunez said connecting the families with resources is an important step. She also said it’s vital to let those homeless families know there are people in the schools that can help.
“We help with clothing, transportation and really anything we can do to help keep that child stable and keep them engaged in school,” Nunez said. “That’s really our goal. We’re doing this not only so community members are aware that homelessness happens to families in the valley, but that there are also people here to help.”
While the social workers focus on eliminating barriers, like transportation, to make it easier for students to attend school, Taylor said it’s also important to focus on the mental health of the homeless students.
“To get up and go to school when they are tired, or if they don’t know where they are staying, that’s a lot of stress for them,” Taylor said.
The week was scheduled in November because its Homeless Youth Awareness Month. Nunez hopes to see it continue.
“I’m hoping this becomes a regular, annual thing and that we can build upon it and bring awareness of homelessness — and especially family homelessness — to our communities,” Nunez said.
Tomtas may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2294. Follow her on Twitter @jtomtas.
Ways to help
Both the Lewiston and Clarkston school districts utilize an app called Purposity. Those who sign up for the free app can choose to purchase preselected items through a few clicks on their phone to help students in need. For more information, go online to www.purposity.com or download the app.
Anyone who wants to help a Lewiston student with emergency shelter needs can donate to the Lewiston Independent Foundation for Education. The money should be specified for “homeless lodging.” To learn more, go to www.life-inc.org/contribute.
Another available resource is LC Valley Help, a collaboration of private and nonprofit organizations that help people in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley find emergency and nonemergency assistance in areas like education, food, health care and housing. To learn more, go online to www.lcvalleyhelp.org.