Homeless teens live day-to-day

SUNDAY, OCT. 31, 2010

James Curb of the Coeur d’Alene School District talks with a homeless teen Sept. 27.  (Kathy Plonka)
James Curb of the Coeur d’Alene School District talks with a homeless teen Sept. 27. (Kathy Plonka)

They are the stories one would expect to hear from a street-entrenched adult.

Since becoming homeless, Steve, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, has done whatever necessary to survive. With only a bag of clothes to his name, he’s found refuge by couch-surfing and crashing at the homes of friends. Other times, he’s made his home in the wooded areas around Coeur d’Alene. In warmer months, he’d camp out during the heat of the day and walk the streets in the coolness of night.

Except Steve isn’t an adult.

At just 16 years old, he has been without a fixed home for the last two years since his parents were arrested and imprisoned. He is one of the hidden faces of the hundreds of homeless students in the state.

“All I have is a bag of clothes, and that’s it. I look after myself pretty much. I’m pretty much the only person I can depend on,” Steve said while seated at a bench outside his school on a warm afternoon just a few weeks into the school year. “It’s not that hard, you get used to it after a while. I don’t eat much. Before I moved into this house, pretty much what I did was walk around all night, sleep during the day because it was warm during the day. I meet a lot of people in my situation.”

A growing problem

In schools across the country, the number of homeless students has ballooned in recent years, mirroring the difficulties people face in a wilting economy. More than 1.5 million children in the U.S. – roughly 1 in every 50 – are homeless annually, according to statistics from the National Center on Family Homelessness.

North Idaho isn’t immune. In the Coeur d’Alene School District, 248 of the roughly 10,000 total students were identified as homeless as of last spring, a number that has increase in recent years, said James Curb, the district’s homeless liaison coordinator. Statistics for the 2010-’11 school year will not be available until next spring. There are a variety of factors behind the upswing, Curb added, citing an increase in the number of potentially family fracturing issues that range from foreclosures and job loss, to the challenges of raising children and the threat of violence in the home.

“It’s unbelievable our number (of homeless students),” he said, referring to the districtwide figure. Listing the causes of homelessness, he added, “it can be the state of the family. It’s not easy raising kids and it’s not easy being a parent. Some folks just can’t make it financially. Times are tough and sometimes they have to live with relatives or maybe one or both of the parents are incarcerated, then the kids are forced to live with somebody else.”

Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the description of a homeless student is wide-ranging. They are those who: lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence; share housing due to economic struggles (double-up); live in a shelter, hotel or motel; reside in a public place not designed for sleeping, such as cars and parks; are an unaccompanied youth, awaiting foster care placement, or have been abandoned in a hospital; or are a migrant child who qualifies under any of the above.

The federal law ensures educational rights and protections for homeless children and youth. In addition to access to the same free, public education as other students, the law requires that transportation be provided to those students who have been uprooted from their homes or out of the district so that they maintain educational continuity by remaining in one school throughout the year.

The act also calls for each school district in the U.S. to designate a liaison to help meet the needs of homeless students. For Coeur d’Alene School District’s Curb, an important part of his job is to coordinate whatever the student’s need is with the various community services available in the area.

“What we do is we get him hooked up with what his basic needs are: clothes, food, medical,” Curb explained.

The burden on schools

While the McKinney-Vento measure has provided aid for countless homeless students through the years, it also places a financial burden on already hard-hit districts. In previous years, the Coeur d’Alene School District received McKinney-Vento grants to offset the costs. However, this year’s grants, which totaled $200,037, were awarded to Boise-area school districts, which accounted for 1,717 homeless students in the 2009-’10 school year (Nampa ranked first in school districts statewide with 757 homeless students; Boise second with 656; Meridian third with 304; and Coeur d’Alene was fourth with 248).

“It’s a challenge for us,” Curb said. “There are just no finances, so it makes it very difficult for a school district, which already has budgetary cuts, to extend itself in more than one direction.”

Identifying students without a home is just one part of the larger problem.

“A lot of families and kids try to hide the fact that they are homeless,” Curb said.

Then, the priority becomes aligning the students with the appropriate service providers to fit their needs. Thankfully, he said, the Lake City has no shortage of helping hands.

“There’s a ton of help in the area,” he said. “We’re all pretty networked so we know who really needs help. Obviously we want to protect the resources as best we can and be good stewards of them, so we all talk and communicate with each other.”

Project Safe Place is one of the service centers available for teenagers in crisis. With 78 locations, including a drop-in center, spread around the greater Coeur d’Alene area, the program is a refuge for students experiencing homelessness and other turmoil, while also offering drug prevention education, crisis intervention, emergency shelter for youth under 18, and other services.

Brandi Smitherman, director of Project Safe Place, said they’ve witnessed more homeless teens at the center in recent years.

“We have seen an immense increase in the amount of shelter calls that we get,” she offered. “Just in the past year, we have provided 100 shelter nights for youth under the age of 18, and we need more homes, more people that are willing to actually take some of these youth for the 21 days so that we can get something else set up that’s more long-term.”

Stuck in legal limbo at 16

Unfortunately for Steve, his situation is particularly troublesome. Idaho has no law to allow him to declare himself independent from his parents, whereas other states have emancipation laws that allow people 16 and 17 years old to qualify for state assistance.

Until he turns 18, and because the state stripped his parents of their parental rights, Steve is stuck in legal limbo without any set resources available for housing, food stamps and other necessities. In the meantime, he’s trying to finish high school, which he hopes to do via online coursework while remaining in North Idaho.

“In the state of Idaho, there are no rights or resources for anybody in his situation. Nothing,” Curb said. “When he turns 18, he can apply for food stamps; he can apply for shelter and housing. But in the situation he’s in now, nothing.”

In closing the loophole, Curb said the first step is increasing awareness.

“First of all, we’ve got to make people aware that we have this huge doughnut hole and there are kids in the middle of it. There are kids that have got nothing, absolutely nothing. No rights, no resources,” he said. “It’s a delicate issue because it’s not about taking the rights away from the parents; he’s got no viable parents. It’s just giving some assistance to the kids in these situations.”

One option Curb described is to have a court-appointed special advocate for students such as Steve. “Someone aware of what this guy’s going through, what his needs are and works within the system, because what does a 16-year-old know about the system? He’s doing his best just to stay out of the system.”

Curb added: “We can do better. For him to be in this situation, this is just a travesty, and we’ve got nothing for him.”

A hard transition to adulthood

Another obstacle for homeless students is adapting to post-high school life.

“There are no transitional-age services in the area, so they are moving into adulthood with older, street-entrenched adults. Really, all it does is force them to get into that community,” Smitherman explained.

People in the community shouldn’t be afraid to get involved, she added.

“I think there’s a big fear within the community that people are unable to help anyone under 18 because they are afraid they are going to be arrested or somehow suffer legal consequence,” she said. “It’s completely a disservice because those kids end up staying out of sight and then they turn 18 and they are starting from zero. There are all these things they could have been preparing for once they hit 18, but instead they have to start from scratch.”

For Steve, placing any hope in the future is somewhat of an absurd concept. He just focuses on the here-and-now and immediate priorities. Food. Shelter. Finding a job. Until those issues are met, his outlook remains in the short-term.

“If I could get a job I’d hold it. I have no problem working, it’s a part of life and I’m used to it,” he said, though that plan is on hold until he receives his Social Security card from a family member in Washington. “The way I see it is so far I’m pretty self-sufficient. I do everything on my own, I get what I need. I mean, I don’t really need a parent’s help – I didn’t need them most of my life and I don’t need them now.”

As for what he sees for himself after high school, Steve said he’s not sure. It’s too early to tell, he said.

“I just kind of go with the flow. I don’t really get my hopes up for anything because I learned as a kid that things don’t really go your way, so I don’t really get my hopes up for anything,” he said. “Things happen in life – you can’t really control them and whatever happens, happens.”

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