In the midst of a community focus on homelessness, two staff members with the Del Norte County Office of Education say they feel homeless children are being left out of the discussion.

According to Connie Battles-Bern, homeless and foster youth liaisons for the Office of Education, and Patti Rommel, DNCOE’s foster youth services coordinator, the official number of homeless youth in Del Norte County is 130. The actual number is higher, they say. And though there are services the County Office of Education can offer homeless youth to make sure they get to school, it can’t provide those services unless those youth are identified as homeless.

Battles-Bern and Rommel have recently taken to local radio to educate the public on the services the DNCOE offers to homeless students, but they say they haven’t received many phone calls.

“Many people are fearful that homelessness is breaking the law, so they don’t want to indicate that they are homeless,” said Battles-Bern, who started full time with the County Office of Education on Nov. 5. “I have a family I’m working with right now and they’re living in parking lots with two children who are school-aged children and they’re having to move from place to place.”

A different criteria

Rather than using criteria established under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to identify whether a student is homeless, the Del Norte County Office of Education uses criteria described in the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987.

According to Rommel, under HUD, families who are doubled up with another family or living in a hotel at their own expense for more than 16 days are not homeless.

However, under the McKinney-Vento Act, homeless children and youth are those that lack a fixed regular and adequate nighttime residence. This includes youngsters sharing a house belonging to someone other than their parents or legal guardian; those who are living in cars; those who are living in a public or private place not designed for or used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings; and those who are migratory, according to the act.

“Under McKinney-Vento, if you are in those situations and it’s due to economics or you’re fleeing a dangerous situation or attempting to flee a dangerous situation then you are counted as being a homeless student,” Rommel said.

Rommel said she’s certain the number of 130 students the DNCOE has identified as homeless under the McKinney-Vento Act criteria is greater than that due to a purge of Office of Education’s system about four years ago by a staff member who followed the HUD definition of homelessness rather than the McKinney-Vento definition.

“That purge eliminated about 2/3rds (of homeless students),” Rommel said. “So if you actually look at the statistics of Del Norte County, there is about an 11 percent homeless population. Right now, 130 students represents 3.2 percent... If we’re looking at 11 percent homeless, including our student population, we’ve only identified about a third.”

According to Rommel, one of the largest under-identified groups of homeless students are those who are couch surfing as well as unaccompanied youth, or minors not living with a parent or legal guardian. She noted the County Office of Education can still identify a family or student as being homeless if a teacher suspects they are staying with someone who is not a legal guardian, however, it’s up to the student if they want services.

Services available

One of their goals in getting on the radio is to prompt those who are listening to speak with any family they suspect may be homeless and encourage them to take advantages of the services the County Office of Education can provide, Rommel and Battles-Bern say.

These services include providing clothing, shoes and sleeping bags to homeless families with children, according to Battles-Bern. She said she and Rommel eventually envision having resource rooms available at each school in the county complete with a washer and dryer any student could use.

Rommel said she and Battles-Bern are also targeting unaccompanied youth that are high school seniors this year.

“We want to make sure they’re getting their senior pictures,” Rommel said. “We want to make sure they’re getting a yearbook. We want to make sure they’re getting graduation announcements — let’s try and make a student’s school experience as typical as possible.”

Battles-Bern said the County Office of Education has also reached out to the Wild Rivers Community Foundation, the Workforce Development Center and departments with the county to teach job skills to 16-year-olds.

The County Office of Education can also provide services that directly impact a homeless student’s family. Battles-Bern mentioned a youth who, though he’s not in the school system, he’s the legal guardian for his younger siblings.

According to Rommel, she and Battles-Bern have connected this youth with the family stabilization program through the Del Norte County Department of Health and Human Services. Rommel will also help the young man apply for federal student aid, enabling him to continue his education for free.

“The identification came from one of our staff members at Castle Rock,” Rommel said, referring to the youth she’s working with. “That’s where it becomes so critical that we just kind of get our entire community aware. I have a really good feeling about this situation. It’s going to take some time, but they’re on the right path now.”

Battling the stigma

Michael Hawkins, Del Norte County Unified School District’s director of grants and community outreach, pointed out that encouraging homeless students to take advantages of the services the County Office of Education provides may require rebranding “what it means to sign up for these services.”

“There are so many programs that are only available to people in their situation and they’ll go unused,” he said. “The opportunities will go unused.”

Rommel, however, noted for many students who experience homelessness, their situation is so overwhelming that they’re not able to progress with their education. She noted many who struggle with homelessness are also dealing with past traumas such as domestic and sexual abuse and lack resiliency.

“One of the things that the superintendent has stated is that regardless of who we are and how we’re viewing homelessness, we all have children in common,” Rommel said. “We all want our children to prosper and so when we center our attention around homeless children, we can come together as a society.”

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com .

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