TWIN FALLS — A worsening back injury pushed Lorie Wendel out of the work force and into the ranks of the homeless.
Living in a single cramped room at the Old Towne Lodge in downtown Twin Falls, the divorced mother’s three teenagers are getting their homework done and doing well in school. But it’s a challenge.
“The biggest impact is we’re all in the same room,” Wendel said. There’s no privacy. “The two boys fight constantly.”
Despite a strong economy and low unemployment rates, many south-central Idaho school districts see an increasing number of homeless students. But those students’ situations are different than you might expect.
“Homelessness is a totally different look,” said Kim Bedke, homeless services coordinator for the Cassia County School District. “A lot of times, you’re not going to see people on the streets or with signs.”
Instead, many share an apartment or house with another family.
Across Idaho, 7,832 students were homeless last school year, up almost 1,700 from the 2012-13 school year.
Here in the Magic Valley, school officials say one reason for the uptick may be that they’re doing a better job of identifying homeless students.
Four percent of Twin Falls School District students are homeless, and the number has increased more than 50 percent over five years.
As of May, 527 Twin Falls children were identified as homeless — 434 of whom were in school. Seventy-seven percent were doubled up with another family; 11 percent lived in motels, 10 percent in a shelter and 2 percent in a camper trailer, motor home or car.
Who qualifies? The definition — children who lack a “fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence” — is set by the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which went into effect in 1987 and was reauthorized by Congress in 2015 under the Every Student Succeeds Act.
If students are identified as homeless, they keep that designation throughout the school year, even if their living situations change.
What leads to homelessness? The circumstances may include divorce, domestic violence, a lost job, parents who are in and out of jail, house fires, mold in homes, and unexpected medical issues or accidents.
“There’s just an array of different reasons people become homeless,” said JoAnn Gemar, at-risk services coordinator and homeless liaison for the Twin Falls School District.
The effects on children can be huge.
Homeless students may be in an environment where it’s a struggle to get adequate sleep and food or to find a quiet place to do homework. And parents might rely on teens to look after younger siblings and prepare meals while they work.
Like their peers, homeless middle schoolers want to hang out with their friends and be goofy.
“They’re not any different than any other kid,” Robert Stuart Middle School Principal Amy McBride said.
If schools can help students through homelessness and toward successful graduation, Twin Falls School District spokeswoman Eva Craner said, perhaps they can build better lives.
“Ultimately,” she said, “we want them to break that cycle.”
Jerome families demonstrate the variety of situations called homelessness: a young adult raising younger siblings while both parents are in prison, for example. A family living in a motel after losing a home to fire. A family in a fifth wheel on a relative’s property.
Some families moved to Jerome thinking they could find work but haven’t been successful.
“Some of our high school youth are couch surfing,” Jerome School District federal programs director Kim Lickley said. That qualifies as homeless, too.
Cassia County’s homeless liaison, Jeannie Lierman, noticed an increase this year of high schoolers living on their own.
The Twin Falls district is getting better at identifying students who qualify as homeless.
In Jerome, that’s a particularly complicated task.
Jerome School District’s number of homeless students has fluctuated wildly over the past seven years — from a peak of 171 during the 2011-12 school year to just 45 this year. But that apparent drop is deceptive.
“I personally don’t think there’s been a huge change,” Lickley said. But determining who’s homeless “is not black-and-white at all.”
Some families no longer qualify, she said, because they’re voluntarily doubling up. It’s something Jerome school officials started looking at more closely last school year. For some Hispanic families, in particular, the explanation is cultural: several generations living under the same roof.
Of Jerome students still identified as homeless, 85 percent share a residence with another family.
“In our community, and I assume a lot of the Magic Valley, we have a lot of families who are doubled up,” Lickley said.
As of mid-January all of Gooding’s homeless families were doubled up, said Tami Anderson, Gooding Elementary’s social worker.
To help homeless families, schools first need to know who they are. But some keep their living situations secret because they’re embarrassed or afraid of judgment.
Twin Falls’ Robert Stuart Middle School has a well-stocked food pantry. But despite information being distributed, not many families use it. McBride suspects some parents may be embarrassed to ask for help.
Just before Thanksgiving, a school counselor delivered a box of food to one student’s family — at home.
“We’re extremely sensitive to the embarrassment factor,” McBride said.
Many circumstances are beyond students’ control. But with kids, “anything can be a stigma,” McBride said. “And kids are not always kind.”
In Gooding, Anderson doesn’t use the word “homeless” when meeting with families who may need help.
If families qualify as homeless, students automatically qualify for free school lunches. “Sometimes, I use that as a conversation starter so I can build a relationship with a family and get more information,” she said.
The stigma is most often experienced by families who are homeless for the first time, Gemar said, particularly those who’ve been through a recent divorce or medical issue.
In registration packets distributed at the beginning of each school year, Magic Valley families are asked to fill out a residency form. Its questions include whether the family lives in a motel, doubled up, in a vehicle or in a house without running water.
School secretaries check to see if any “yes” answers are marked. If so, information is passed to a homeless liaison — a designated person in each school or at a school district office. The liaison contacts the family to see if there’s a need.
In Twin Falls, Robert Stuart Middle School and Canyon Ridge High School each have an employee to help check on students who may meet homeless guidelines. But Gemar oversees the process for the entire school district. That includes interviewing families and providing assistance.
Gemar also receives phone calls from people giving her a heads-up about families who may be struggling.
“Some I can get ahold of, some I can’t,” Gemar said. But she often goes to high schools to interview homeless students.
Siblings of Twin Falls School District students — including preschoolers and teens who dropped out of school — can qualify for assistance, too.
“Under the federal guidelines, they want us to track those kids,” Gemar said.
Midway through the school year, Magic Valley schools make the residency form available again and encourage families to fill it out if their living situations have changed.
“Our eyes and ears are always open,” Lickley said.
Often there aren’t warning signs. Some middle schoolers wear the same clothes frequently regardless of their living situations.
Teachers become aware of children’s homelessness by building a relationship, McBride said. “A lot of it becomes revealed at the ground level.”
Elementary school teachers may notice earlier because they see the same students all day, she said, but middle school teachers do well even with only 45-minute class periods and 30 students in each class.
Gemar reports to school administrators once a month about homeless students at each school. At Robert Stuart, numbers in early January hovered between 45 and 50.
It’s a small percentage of the student body, McBride said, but it’s striking. “When I think of 50 kids, that seems exponential.”
Children identified as homeless are eligible to receive help through their school districts. In Twin Falls, that means free school breakfasts and lunches, a weekend backpack program with food through The Idaho Foodbank, school supplies, transportation, tutoring, hygiene items, clothing, school uniforms for Bridge Academy students and referrals to community agencies to help with other needs.
In Cassia County, it means backpacks, school supplies, senior project supplies, class fees and college entrance exams. The Cassia County district can also purchase school uniforms, required at Cassia High School, and provide vouchers for Deseret Industries clothing.
A portion of federal Title I funding to school districts, which help students living in poverty, is designated for homeless students.
For the Jerome School District, that’s only about $2,000 this year.
So in Jerome, homeless families are referred to community resources such as the Jerome Food Ministry. Free hot meals are offered at St. Jerome Catholic Church; food is available at Martha & Mary’s Food Pantry, and clothing at Joseph’s Closet.
“The rest of it is mostly pointing them in the right direction,” Lickley said.
Many school districts work with Deseret Industries to provide vouchers for thrift store clothing. The problem in Jerome: Families may not have transportation to get to the Twin Falls store.
One of Lickley’s frustrations is finding community resources for homeless high schoolers, such as those who have just a few months before graduation.
“Being in Jerome, we don’t have a shelter,” she said.
Lickley wants to start a program to find temporary host families in Jerome.
“In the five months I’ve been here, there were a couple of situations where it would have been nice to have a host family,” she said.
Besides the federal Title I money, the Twin Falls district has a McKinney-Vento subgrant of $105,000 for three years — money that helps pay for Gemar’s salary and homeless student services.
Eight Twin Falls schools have food pantries on campus: Bickel, Harrison, Lincoln, Oregon Trail and Rock Creek elementary schools; Robert Stuart Middle School; and Canyon Ridge and Magic Valley high schools. The Twin Falls Optimist Club’s “Coats for Kids” project provides coats. Local churches help out with food donations and Payless gift cards for shoes.
“The network JoAnn has created is incredible,” Craner said.
Last year, a homeless student at Magic Valley High School was living on his own and working full time but didn’t have transportation, Gemar said. A local church donated a bicycle, helmet and lock. “He was so excited.”
Recently, the school district gave a grandmother gas cards so she could drive her grandchildren — whom she’s raising — 17 miles to school in Twin Falls so they wouldn’t have to change schools.
Parents have a choice about whether to keep their children in their home schools, and the school district provides busing.
“We try very, very hard to keep them in their same school,” Gemar said.
It’s important for homeless students to have something consistent in their lives, McBride said, and staying at a home school gives that stability.
Grades can fluctuate when students move frequently, so Gemar checks Twin Falls homeless students’ grades each quarter. If they’re failing a class, the school formulates a plan — if parents give the OK — to help them pass.
Robert Stuart employees also check homeless students’ grades every week or every other week; if they’re struggling in a class, school officials talk with the teacher and come up with a plan. One option is staying after school to complete homework. Robert Stuart offers tutoring for all students from 2:45 to nearly 4 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, and a school bus takes them home.
The school district can also provide tutoring if it’s not offered at a student’s school.
It’s Gemar’s fifth year in the job, and she has encountered few people who said “no” to help. But most weren’t aware of the services offered until she got in touch.
She said it’s key to be respectful of homeless families and to offer help that’s in their best interests. “I think it’s just dropping those barriers.”
Gemar — who has worked in social services more than 40 years — said it’s ultimately a family’s choice whether to accept assistance. And overseeing more than 400 homeless students doesn’t leave time for individual case management.