By Jaclyn Zubrzycki
Nearly 25,000 Colorado children were homeless during the 2014-15 school year.
That’s more than twice as many as were homeless just seven years ago, according to the 2016 KIDS COUNT in Colorado! report, which takes stock of the well-being of children in the state.
The growth in homelessness comes even as the number of Colorado children living in poverty decreased for the second year in a row.
Colorado is not alone. According to the National Center for Homeless Education, which is part of the federal education department, school districts around the country have been reporting increases in homelessness for several years: 1,129,791 students in the 2011-12 school year; 1,216,888 in 2012-13; and 1,298,450 in 2013-14. National data for the most recent school year is not yet available.
The authors of America’s Youngest Outcasts, a 2014 report on youth homelessness, attribute that increase to a combination of high poverty rates, lack of affordable housing, racial disparities, the challenges of single parenting, domestic violence and other traumatic experiences, and the lingering effects of the Great Recession.
A similar set of factors hold true in Colorado, said Kim Easton, CEO of Urban Peak, a nonprofit that offers services and shelters for homeless youth in Colorado Springs and Denver.
But the stark increase here seems particularly tied to what observers are calling a crisis in affordable housing, said Sarah Hughes, research director for the Colorado Children’s Campaign, a Trust grantee that publishes the KIDS COUNT report.
“Growth can be a good thing, but I think it’s important that we not lose sight of unintended consequences,” she said.
Chaer Robert, manager of the Family Economic Security program at the Colorado Center for Law & Policy (CCLP), also a Trust grantee, said the high cost of housing combined with stagnant wages has created an untenable situation for many families.
In Denver, for instance, housing prices and rental costs have skyrocketed. And while the rate of children living under the poverty line has decreased, the percent of children and families living in extreme poverty—a household income of $12,000 or less for a family of four—remained about constant.
For families who can’t find affordable housing, “their only option is doubling up,” Robert said, referring to the practice of sharing space with other persons due to economic hardship.
Robert said Colorado’s landlord-tenant laws are also more favorable to landlords than in many states. Landlords only have to give tenants on month-to-month leases seven days of notice before raising their rent, for instance. Those laws affect more families now than ever: 38 percent of Colorado families did not own their homes in 2014, up from 30 percent in 2006, according to the 2016 KIDS COUNT in Colorado! report.
That instability for families shows up in the KIDS COUNT child homelessness figures. Denver, Mesa County and Pueblo counties saw the biggest increases in the percent of children without permanent housing over the last year. Adams and El Paso counties also saw significant increases in the number of homeless youth.
Each region faces distinct challenges. In Denver and other Front Range counties, housing costs are a clear driver; in other parts of the state, such as Mesa County, the economy never fully recovered from the Great Recession, and more families are coming to the region in pursuit of work but not finding it.
Most of the students identified as homeless aren’t living on the streets.
Nearly 75 percent of the 24,685 young people identified as homeless by Colorado school districts were “doubled up.” A full 12 percent of Colorado children live in overcrowded housing, according to the report.
Others are staying in shelters, hotels or motels. Just 883—less than 5 percent—were identified as unsheltered.
Urban Peak’s Easton said that, if anything, the numbers likely underestimate the number of youth experiencing homelessness. Since the data focus on what’s tracked in schools, older teens who are disconnected from school may not show up. From her observations, “it’s at a crisis level,” she said.
For instance, Athena Rose, now 21, became homeless at 16. She attended five different Denver high schools during her teens, but eventually stopped attending school. A young person like her would not show up in the data in KIDS COUNT once she or he stopped attending school.
Included in this group, says Easton, are a disproportionate number of LGBTQ teens living in local shelters.
In Mesa County, the district marked a 68 percent growth in homeless students after Cathy Ebel, the district’s prevention services coordinator, launched a push to identify students and families and help make them aware of rights and supports available to them.
In school, homeless students often face significant challenges. Moving between homes can lead to lost time in school or constant uprooting that can get in the way of learning. The lack of stability can also lead to emotional and behavioral challenges.
“The students are no less capable than anyone else, but because of their high mobility, they often have huge learning gaps” due to time spent out of school, said Mesa County’s Ebel.
The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act requires school districts to assure that homeless families and youth don’t face barriers to enrolling in or attending school. For instance, young people might be given support to help with transportation from temporary housing to their home school.
That can provide needed stability during times of transition.
Tiffany—who asked to keep her last name private—arrived in Denver in late 2015 with her three young children after she and her husband lost their home in their native Chicago when the building was closed.
Tiffany enrolled her children at Colfax Elementary in Denver while the family stayed at a nearby temporary shelter, but eventually found affordable housing in Aurora. School officials made sure that the students did not need to change schools. They also gave the children discounts on uniform costs and backpacks while their parents searched for jobs.
Unfortunately, many families and students aren’t aware they qualify for such assistance. “They think of themselves as being in a temporary, transitional situation,” said Mesa County’s Ebel.
And school officials themselves aren’t always aware of students’ rights and needs, Ebel added. She said some school officials don’t realize students can stay in their school even if they have moved, or that homeless students can enroll in school even without proof of residence or a birth certificate.
In Denver, Anna Theisen, the coordinator of Denver Public Schools’ Homeless Education Network, said that as the number of homeless students grows, “we have to triage families’ needs.”
The Homeless Education Network helps identify homeless students and make sure that they and their families have access to support services through the school district and other local organizations. The staff makes sure, for instance, that students can stay in their home school even if they move, and helps provide students with school supplies, financial support for transportation, uniforms and meals.
Theisen said that while some schools located near shelters or services for homeless families have had high numbers of homeless students for years, “it’s becoming more of a district-wide issue.”
She said the district currently has 14 schools where 21-30 students have been identified as homeless, and five schools that have between 50 and 70 students.
Schools can be liaisons between families and other organizations that focus on helping homeless families, like the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
“We’re good at identifying students,” Theisen said. But when it comes to addressing families’ other needs, like finding employment or providing mental health support, “we don’t have the staff for that.”
A mix of factors
Colorado policymakers have been taking aim at the issue with mixed success.
A bill that would have put more state funds toward affordable housing and a bill that would have required landlords to give month-to-month tenants more notice before asking them to vacate failed in the state legislature in early May.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock has touted a plan to create or preserve 6,000 affordable apartments, condos or houses over the next 10 years. And CCLP’s Robert said there are more efforts to connect the various agencies and organizations that work with homeless families.
With the help of a three-year housing voucher and a new job, Tiffany is optimistic about her family’s path to stability in Colorado. “It was an experience for me and my children,” she said. But she said she is glad to have come to Denver from Chicago after becoming homeless. “There’s a whole world to see.”
Meanwhile, Rose, who is part of the homeless-run advocacy network Homeless Out Loud, said that while homeless young people face challenges, their situation is by no means hopeless.
She has found shelter, friends and mentors through Homeless Out Loud, and is on her way to earning a college degree. “When you don’t have stability, everything is super chaotic,” she said. “But not all homeless kids are lost. Not all have a lack of potential.”