- Associated Press - Monday, February 27, 2017

LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) - Zade Johnson was 17 when he first became homeless.

The Logan High School senior arrived home on a November 2015 night after a call from a social worker and found two police cars parked near his home, the La Crosse Tribune (http://bit.ly/2ljQcCO ) reported. His mom, an alcoholic, was drunk again, he recounted, and had kicked Johnson’s case worker out of the house.

When he arrived, he said, she charged at the police and Johnson. His younger brother was taken into foster care, but the police told Johnson he couldn’t stay there and had to find somewhere else to live.

“At that moment, all I could think about was: ‘How could she do this to us?’” he said.

Johnson is not alone in struggling with homelessness. Last year, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction reported 180 homeless students in the La Crosse School District, the highest number reported at the school during the 13 years the DPI has collected data, and more than a third of the total homeless student population in the region that year.

Too old for the foster program, Johnson stayed first with the family of a Logan staffer, and then with his father for a few months before finding a home with a family he was close to at church. A volunteer with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater La Crosse and a member of the U.S. Army National Guard, Johnson said the support from people around him helped keep him from falling through the cracks at school.

Staff members encouraged him to enroll in Logan’s LaCrossroads program when his grades slipped in math. The Boys and Girls Clubs were a second home for him, and the family he lives with now in Onalaska helped teach him to drive and encouraged his passion to become a professional umpire.

“They really taught me a lot,” he said of the two families that took him in. “I had to grow up so early, but they were such great role models.”

At any given time, 1 or 2 percent of the students in the district are homeless, La Crosse Superintendent Randy Nelson said. Ensuring students succeed in these situations, when their entire world may be turning upside down, is a big challenge for educators, especially as the issue gains more federal attention through the new Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced the No Child Left Behind legislation.

The majority of students who report being homeless are in elementary school, said Regina Siegel, La Crosse’s director of pupil services and learning supports. Those number taper off in middle school and high school, but she said the stigma attached to homelessness might lead to under-reporting.

Everyone has to come together to provide support, Nelson said, and the community has risen to the challenge. From school social workers to the La Crosse Area Family Collaborative, agencies are in place to minimize the disruption being homeless has on students.

“It doesn’t matter what the situation may be behind a child,” Nelson said. “Our job is to support them one child at a time.”

Johnson became homeless to escape a bad family situation, but students in the district become homeless for many reasons. Their situations are more dynamic than they used to be, La Crosse Area Family Collaborative Director Isaac Hoffman said, and homelessness is becoming more challenging to combat.

According to the DPI data, the number of homeless students has risen in the past decade and peaked in 2013-14 at 579 in the region. That is more than double the number in 2005-06, when the districts in the region reported 205 homeless students.

Part of the increase, Hoffman and other experts said, may come from increased awareness of the issue. But there are also definite economic and social trends that could be behind the increase.

Generational poverty can make it a struggle for some families to keep things together, said Hoffman, who was previously the North Side social worker for the collaborative. If they miss a rent check or two, families can find themselves looking for a place to stay.

Traumatic events, mental illness and substance abuse can compound one another and make it hard to help families move forward, as each one of those issues has to be addressed or the family can find themselves slipping backward.

“When you compound all of these things, it can be hard to get and keep good housing,” Hoffman said.

One family his organization helped was a single mom with newborn twins and a 6-year-old boy. The family was trying to get away from domestic violence but had evictions on their record.

The family was staying at a hotel but couldn’t afford that very long. A 10-year-old criminal conviction dogged the mother in her search for housing. The collaborative searched for a landlord willing to take a risk on the family.

“A lot of people came together,” Hoffman said. “Within three weeks we were able to get the family in an apartment.”

Being homeless also doesn’t necessarily mean living on the street. La Crosse School District data shows 45 students lived with their families in shelters during the 2015-16 school year, and another 16 lived in hotels. Eighty were doubled up, living with friends or other family members, similar to the situation Johnson found himself in. Seven students had no access to shelter.

Siegel said these students can struggle academically. Studies suggest that each major disruption a student experiences, such as becoming homeless or having to move suddenly, can erase up to half a year of academic and social development.

“It’s a big hit for them,” she said. “It is hard to focus on your homework if you don’t know when or where you will be going to sleep that night.”

Students can also face social and developmental problems. Students might break down crying for no apparent reason in the middle of a lesson, might have anger or other emotional issues, and might stop communicating. Being homeless can be a huge weight, and a student can feel let down by those who care for them.

That is where laws such as the McKinney-Vento Act and the Every Student Succeeds Act come into play. They require tracking the homeless student population and providing certain supports.

A homeless student is entitled to continue attending his or her neighborhood school, Siegel said, and districts provide help with transportation if needed. That might include contracting with one of the city’s taxi services to get the students to school or providing a free city bus pass to older students.

“They have a right to attend the school district of origin,” she said. “Transportation cannot be a barrier to that.”

Making sure students can get to school and have the opportunity to participate in activities isn’t the only way district staff provide support.

Emerson Elementary sees a lot of homeless students, said the school’s social worker, Alicia Place. Families living at the nearby Salvation Army shelter come there, as well as families from the region trying to start over in La Crosse.

That can pose challenges, especially if children are coming from another school or district where the curriculum doesn’t line up with that in La Crosse or if students have missed a lot of class. Missing or incomplete records can be a challenge for staff trying to help.

Place said making new friends is harder for homeless children: They are acutely aware that they are different and might not be as willing to trust new people in their lives.

That’s where staff and the community get involved. The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration have donated bags of personal care supplies tailored to both genders.

The La Crosse Area Retired Educators Association puts together activity bags for students who might have lost everything in a house fire or had to leave possessions behind when they became homeless. The bags contain snacks, food coupons, toys and a note from the retired teachers letting the student know they are cared about.

“When we get a new student who is homeless, we are ready to go on a moment’s notice,” Place said. “When they arrive we already have their name on the desk and on their locker. We want the kid to feel welcome here.”

Community resources also play a big role. Hoffman said his organization works with local hospitals for medical and mental health care for homeless families. Organizations such as Catholic Charities, the Boys and Girls Clubs and Couleecap all play a part, whether that is providing an after-school snack and safe place to be, or help with housing and necessities such as blankets and clothing.

“We take a holistic approach,” he said. “You have to divide and conquer to combat this issue.”

That approach helps when minutes and seconds count. Place told of a call from a mother at 2:30 p.m. The family had been kicked out and had no place to sleep that night; school would be out 40 minutes later.

Place was able to get the family set up in a hotel for the next couple of nights, then a shelter and finally a transition into permanent housing. For the family, friends and community members, it was all about laying the tracks as fast as they could in front of the train.

“It’s just about pure survival for these families,” Place said. “It is things you just take for granted, like whether the backpacks are packed or whether the kids still have their boots and mittens or got left behind. We work with them to keep those tracks in place.”

Johnson said finding himself without a place to stay was one of the darkest times of his life. But the people he had built relationships with helped keep him on his feet.

The Boys and Girls Clubs in La Crosse had been a second home for him, and he had worked and volunteered there since he was 13. When school was done for the day, he said, he was always either there or staying at his friend Dalton Hoff’s home.

Dalton’s mother, Beth Hoff, is an administrative assistant at Logan, and her family took Johnson in when he found himself homeless that night in November. Beth said Dalton had known Johnson since the two of them were students at North Woods International School, and he usually spent a lot of time at their home during holidays and school breaks.

After a brief try living with his mother again and a few months living with his biological father, Johnson moved in this past summer with the family of Marilyn and Nick Monsoor and their son Michael. Johnson had met Michael at First Free Church in Onalaska, and the 26-year-old became a mentor, teaching Johnson how to drive and helping him pursue his passion for becoming an umpire.

After basic training this summer, Johnson said, he plans to go to school in Florida to pursue umpiring as a profession and has worked youth league games and for the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association. Things in his life have stabilized, and he said he is thankful for all the people who have taken an interest in his success.

“If I could give a student in a similar situation any advice, it would be to surround themselves with good people,” he said. “I have been blessed with the people in my life.”

___

Information from: La Crosse Tribune, http://www.lacrossetribune.com

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