Alyshia Perrin, superintendent of schools in Bridgeport, learned that one of her students was homeless only after an interview aired on Channel 12 News. The student was having discipline issues, and Perrin was in touch with the child’s mother, but she said that the mom never told her about the housing problem.
“We had already spoken to the mom, and the mom had adamantly denied it,” she said. “So there is this idea of being shameful or not wanting to ask for help. And not saying that we have all the answers – because we don’t — but we do have some resources to be able to provide a stable environment for the family.”
Perrin’s experience expresses one of the challenges of helping students with unstable housing situations — finding out who they are. In 2021, Bridgeport and 78 other districts received funding from a federal coronavirus relief grant specifically for homeless students – to help identify them, and, once they were identified, to help pay for basic necessities. Fourteen districts received funding from a second round in 2022.
Now, with rents and evictions on the rise, district administrators are thinking about how they will continue to provide for the needs of these students when the grant funding runs out in 2024.
Currently, school administrators are using the federal funding in two primary ways — to hire personnel who could reach out to families and gather data, and to provide students with temporary hotel stays, food, transportation and after-school enrichment programs.
This was the case in New London, which received about $202,500 in the first round of the grant funding and $108,000 in the second round.
“Typically, when we have families living in hotels, they don’t have a refrigerator or they don’t have a microwave or a hot plate or some way of cooking,” said Carrie Rivera, the district’s executive director of school and family supports. “So we can provide those things, also through our grants, to help them.”
New London has reported about 250 students living without stable housing out of a student body of about 3,100 — dwarfing larger districts like Hartford and Bridgeport. Rivera said relationships were the key to identifying students who are experiencing homelessness — particularly the high schoolers, who are often less willing to talk about life outside of school.
“It’s really just the staff within high school that then say, ‘Carrie’s living in a car, can we support them with the laundry or get them new clothes — that they don’t have sweatshirts or they don’t have a winter coat right now,” said Rivera. “If they don’t have the relationship, the high schoolers typically won’t tell us.”
Perrin said that there are behaviors which serve as red flags that a student might be experiencing an unstable home environment. She said the district’s homelessness liaison looks for these behaviors, notes increases in discipline referrals and then reaches out to parents.
“Certain students will become more introverted. A lack of work completion. Some of them might become more depressed,” said Perrin. “It will reveal itself even with the appearance of children — they’re not coming in clean and tidy. They’re not coming to school like they regularly would … there might be a change in attendance patterns.”
According to Perrin, the district counted 118 homeless students as of this past December. The state of Connecticut recorded 234 homeless students in Bridgeport in 2021-22.
“Still a large number”
Robinson Camacho, director of family and community partnerships for the Windham Public Schools, said that as of December, the schools have identified 26 active cases of homelessness and 3 more cases “pending” — which he characterized as “a bit high.” He said he expected the number to go up in the second semester. The year prior to the pandemic, the district recorded 68 homeless students total, which dropped to 44 in 2020-21 and rose to 63 last year.
Camacho said he believes the recent increase can be traced back to the rise in evictions since the end of the pandemic-era moratorium in August 2021.
“We have seen multiple evictions happen since the moratorium from the president went out,” said Camacho. “Many landlords have been taking advantage and just getting people out of their properties.”
He said the federal coronavirus relief funds allowed the district to contract with the Windham Regional Community Council to help families that are struggling with evictions, and to help pay for legal fees and downpayments on apartments.
Camacho said that the housing problem has also changed in character.
In the past, he said, many of these students were “doubling up” — sharing a living space with someone else. Now, they are seeing more students in shelters, which leads to additional problems for parents and schools.
“All the shelters are at capacity right now. So we don’t have space in this area. They have to go to Hartford, Norwich, Plainfield, and we have to transport them to come here,” he said.
Camacho said he expects the problem to grow, particularly as families from Puerto Rico come to settle on the mainland United States, often doubling up with other families in the area.
Tamu Lucero, superintendent of schools in Stamford, said she estimated that the number of homeless students in Stamford doubled during the pandemic. In 2020-21, the district counted 31 homeless students under the McKinney-Vento Act. Last year, that number was 71 students, and this year it has risen to 92 students, according to data that the district provided. Data from the state last year gives a higher number — possibly a result of when the count took place.
Lucero said that, thanks to a combination of language barriers, privacy issues and families’ reluctance to come forward, she believes there are also more homeless students that the district hasn’t identified.
Verna Ruffin, superintendent in Waterbury schools, told CT Examiner that although the number of homeless students in her district this year is lower than earlier years — 576 students this year compared to the 728 the district recorded last year — the number of students without a stable home environment is still considerable.
“It’s always unsettling to think that there are over 500 students in my district that are considered homeless,” said Ruffin. “That’s concerning. Even though it’s not the 700 at one point, five hundred is still a large number.”
“We know these are non-negotiables”
The districts still have some time to make use of the special funding that came from the federal government during the pandemic. The first round of funding expires next September, and the second round has to be spent by January 2025.
But the question still remains of whether, and how, the districts will be able to sustain the services they have put in place with the new funds after that funding no longer exists.
Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie said that the district will have to fold in some of the costs of food, shelter and transportation into their budget.
“We know these are non-negotiables. These are things that students need. So they have to be embedded into our general fund. They have to be embedded into the heart and soul of the district’s funding stream,” said Ritchie.
While her district does receive funding from a smaller federal grant called the McKinney-Vento grant, Ritchie said the amount was “tiny.” In 2022, the district received $54,000 through the McKinney-Vento grant, all of which went toward transportation.
Camacho said that he believes that Windham will be able to continue providing services to the students through the McKinney-Vento grant, which he said provides the district with about $40,000 each year. But Camacho said he believes the money should be permanently allocated to the districts — right now, he said, Windham has to compete with other districts in the state to qualify. If they don’t receive the grant, he said, the Board of Education has some in-kind funds that can be put aside to help homeless students.
“Essentially, we have Plan A, Plan B and Plan C,” he said.
In an emailed statement to CT Examiner, the state Department of Education said that Connecticut expects to receive $1 million each year through the McKinney-Vento education of Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) program, which will help support school districts after the current federal grant funding dries up.
Perrin said that the services Bridgeport will be able to provide will largely depend on whether the number of homeless students continues to rise. She said that during the pandemic, the district saw a “huge influx” of new students coming from New York and from Central and Latin America. She said that some of those students ended up “doubling up” with other family members.
“We are concerned that we will not be able to keep up with the demand,” she said. “But it really would depend on whether this uptick in identified students who are homeless will continue … And right now we don’t have a way of predicting that.”
Ruffin said that the Waterbury schools are trying to determine which programs have worked best, to help the district focus its future efforts.
“The [federal grant] money allowed us to do much more for our families and our children than we ever had before,” said Ruffin. “And so we’re trying … to determine things that are working very well in the district and things that perhaps aren’t working well — so that when we no longer have [the federal grant] money, we will have a plan of proven strategies that we need to continue to fund through our general budget as well as through grants.”
Ruffin said that ultimately, what needs to be done is to get to the root cause of homelessness.
“I’ve always felt that when people have access to great paying jobs … access to jobs that could help them earn a salary that will help them to sustain a life that they own — I think that’s always the best way,” she said.