Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Young and Homeless in Rural America

It's hard out there. 

At the New York Times, "Most social services come through the schools — but it can be impossible to get to them":

One evening in June, Scott Cooper, a high school football coach in rural southern Ohio, received a text from Blake, one of his linebackers. Blake, who was 17, would miss practice the next day, and so would his brother Lee Jr., who was 15. Another text followed with an explanation: Their family had to move, and right away. They didn’t know where, but it would probably mean leaving River Valley High School.

In Cooper’s view, the brothers, each soft-spoken, each over six feet tall, had real promise. They’re “good kids,” he said, “very respectful, and their upside as players is very high.” They would show up on weekends to help make goody bags for team fund-raisers or sandwiches for a charity event. Sometimes they would stay after scrimmages with their mom, dad, little sister and two younger brothers, helping Cooper’s wife hand out hot dogs from a flowered crock pot until the sky streaked pink and the stadium lights popped on.

The family, including an older brother who had graduated from high school, had left their last home suddenly as well, just 18 months earlier. Before moving to Gallia County, they lived in Portsmouth, about an hour’s drive west, where the boys’ father, Lee, worked in landscaping and their mother, LeAnn, collected workers’ compensation after injuring her back as a home health aide. With a population of about 20,000, Portsmouth was hit particularly hard by the opioid epidemic and its fallout. The family rented a government-subsidized house between an abandoned building and a house where drug deals took place at all hours, LeAnn said. The neighbors rummaged through their trash and dumped needles and buckets of human waste in their yard. The sexual trafficking of children for drugs had become a significant local problem. Fearing for their safety, the family fled in December 2020. (I have used middle names or initials to protect the privacy of the families I met.)

Once they left subsidized housing, the family, like an increasing number of Americans, struggled to find a place that they could afford. They crowded in with LeAnn’s mother, then her sister, and as they searched, the children tried to keep up with their studies at their old schools. They had switched to remote learning during the pandemic, but rural internet access is spotty, and they often couldn’t log on. After three months, the family gave up on finding a place of their own and reluctantly moved to Gallia County, to live with Lee’s dad. Lee had a very troubled relationship with his father, and the family was not optimistic about the move. “It was a last resort,” LeAnn said grimly.

For a while, the arrangement worked better than expected. The kids enrolled in new schools, with Blake and Lee Jr. landing at River Valley High. They got good grades, and Blake wowed everyone with his beautiful tenor voice in show choir. In the spring, he started dating a girl he met in rehearsals for a school production of “Bye Bye Birdie.” Over time, LeAnn said, they “got back into who they used to be.”

But the situation with Lee’s father became volatile. The night Blake texted Cooper, his grandfather had thrown the family out. They had nowhere to go. Cooper wanted to help but didn’t know where to start. He asked the principal what to do, and he said: Ask Sandy. She’ll know.

Sandra Plantz, an administrator at Gallia County Local Schools for more than 20 years, oversees areas as diverse as Title I reading remediation and federal grants for all seven of the district’s schools, including River Valley High. In recent years, though, she has leaned in hard on a role that is overlooked in many districts: homeless liaison. Her district serves just under 3,000 students but covers some 450 square miles of an area that doesn’t offer much in the way of a safety net beyond the local churches. The county has no family homeless shelters, and those with no place to go sometimes end up sleeping in the parking lot of the Walmart or at the hospital emergency room. As homelessness increased in the county in recent years, Sandra and her husband, Kevin, a juvenile probation officer, found themselves at the center of an informal advocacy team.

In 2018, Kevin and a few other local law-enforcement agents started a group they called Code 10 Ministries to raise money to pay for motel stays for families in immediate need of shelter. When Cooper reached out to Sandra, she asked Kevin to have Code 10 pay for two rooms for two nights for Blake’s family at the Travelodge, a grim hotel across from the county fairgrounds.

Sandra then introduced the family to the process of applying for HUD housing. Subsidized housing from HUD is effectively a lottery; nationally there are only 36 units available for every 100 families who qualify, and the requirements can be hard to navigate. Plantz told them that purchasing their own motel room could set back the clock on when they could qualify as “HUD homeless” — vulnerable enough for long enough to be eligible for housing assistance. She found a woman from her church who would pay for a few more nights instead.

No one could afford to keep paying for the motel rooms, but neither did anyone want to see the family move to a tent in a park, which was an option they had been weighing. Cooper’s wife wanted to let the littlest children sleep at their house, but Plantz advised that this, too, could compromise their status as officially homeless. Cooper had an old camper he was fixing up for the county fair in August — just to get out of the sun on long days — and he offered it to the family. It had no water, working bathroom or propane tank for the stove. The oldest boys had to duck their heads every time they stood up, and they all slept on the floor or in the family’s minivan. June became July, then August, and no better housing option emerged. When the new school year began, Blake and Lee Jr. headed back to River Valley High — and a few weeks later, the family finally moved into HUD housing.

Families like Blake’s don’t fit easily into the “homeless industrial complex,” as some advocates for homeless youth and families have taken to calling the funding mechanisms, rules and priorities that determine the fates of millions of Americans who struggle with housing insecurity every year. The system is focused largely on adults experiencing homelessness in cities, and it is not well equipped to address the types of homelessness experienced by children and families, especially in rural areas. The limited data that exists suggests that rural students face homelessness in roughly the same proportion as their urban counterparts — and with far less in the way of a support system. In this vacuum of resources, schools sometimes offer the only form of help available to homeless families. Over the course of reporting in rural Ohio, I spoke with school officials, homeless advocates, students and their families. I met young people living in trailers that stank of sewage, mothers sexually harassed by predatory landlords, families who could not take their children to the doctor because they could not afford gas for the long trip. For all of them, the stakes of precarious housing were high. Homeless students have the worst educational outcomes of any group, the lowest attendance, the lowest scores on standardized tests, the lowest graduation rates. They all face the same cruel paradox: Students who do not have a stable place to live are unable to attend school regularly, and failing to graduate from high school is the single greatest risk factor for future homelessness...