Las Vegas Sun

November 17, 2017

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Schools serving large numbers of homeless youth

For most students, school can be a bore, a spur to academic achievement or simply a place to hang out with pals. But for homeless students, especially teenagers known as “couch surfers,” who drift from friend’s sofa to friend’s sofa every night, it is something else.

“When you’re neglected and your home life is miserable, going to school becomes a respite,” said Kathleen Boutin, founder and executive director of the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth.

The number of homeless Clark County School District students rose to 3,206 in September, up more than 15 percent from the same month a year ago, according to the latest figures.

That’s 426 more homeless children, or equal to 14 classrooms of students.

The number usually grows as the school year goes on. The district keeps a running count and starts over every school year.

The number of homeless students reached a record as of July 31 with 5,933 children. With about 310,000 students in the district, that figure meant that 1 in 50 public school students was homeless.

Under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, homelessness is defined as lacking “a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”

It includes living in motels, hotels, campgrounds, emergency shelters, automobiles, park benches, bus or train shelters or abandoned buildings.

Boutin said the recent surge in homelessness is explained by the accumulating effects of three years of a recession in Nevada. When the breadwinner loses a job or reaches the end of unemployment benefits, homelessness can result.

Her group, established in 2000, serves about 500 homeless youth and operates a homeless shelter in Las Vegas and long-term housing in Henderson and, anecdotally, is seeing more homeless children.

Boutin suspects the recent increase comes from families “doubling up” with relatives and friends in crowded apartments and houses.

The group has also seen a rise in couch surfers, 16- and 17-year-old children whose parents can no longer afford to care for them. They migrate night to night to different couches in different homes.

The potential for tragedy is high, she said, because unskilled jobs are scarce and child prostitution may seem attractive.

“Of course, a parent is going to show preference for a 5-year-old over a 15-year-old,” she said. “So they’re emancipating their children for financial reasons.”

Metro spokesman Bill Cassell said there was no increase in the number of recorded arrests for child prostitution in Las Vegas in August and September, the period covered by the School District’s homeless figures.

He declined to provide specific data, saying “there’s way too much possibility for misinterpretation.”

Myra Berkovits, who helps compile the homeless figures for the district, said there is no one cause of homelessness. But the longer the recession lasts, the more likely unemployment benefits will run out and health insurance will lapse.

“It’s a perfect storm,” said Berkovits, coordinator of a program called Title I HOPE, part of the federal homelessness law and administered by the state. The program — officially the Homeless Outreach Program for Education — has an annual budget of about $1 million to provide school supplies and medical care to homeless children.

When parents enroll their children, they are typically asked to provide one or two forms of identification, such as a driver’s license, utility bill or apartment lease.

If they can’t supply the identification, the child goes into the homeless count and parents are advised of homeless services.

Besides free breakfast and lunch, the program provides a backpack with school supplies such as pencils and protractors, and toiletries such as soap, washcloth, toothpaste and brush. Older children get a razor, shaving cream and laundry detergent.

The program is expanding services such as basic dental care — cleanings and fillings — and basic eye care including glasses.

If programs can keep homeless children in school, they can actually thrive, Boutin said.

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