ST. GEORGE — During a Utah State Board of Education meeting Thursday morning, Jeffrey Ojeda, the state director of the McKinney-Vento program, spoke about student homelessness in Utah and how it has been impacted by the pandemic.
The McKinney-Vento program is designed to help students who “lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence” by removing barriers so that all students can fully participate in school and sponsored activities with a focus of establishing stability and providing access to education to help youth develop the skills they need to come out of homelessness in the future.
One of the common misconceptions when it comes to homeless youth in Utah is that people think the majority of homeless students are minorities, but “that’s not the case at all,” Odeja said.
According to a 2019-20 McKinney-Vento study looking at demographics, white youth had the highest rates of homelessness at 5,533. The next highest group was Hispanic youth at 4,066. Looking specifically at districts, the study shows Washington County School District as having the sixth-highest population of McKinney-Vento students at 839. The total number in the state was 11,576.
“These are identified students,” Ojeda said. “We know that there are additional students who haven’t been identified, who are hiding because of simply not wanting others to know that they’re in a homeless situation. There’s a lot of stigma attached to that.”
These students are living in situations far beyond what many think of as the norm, he said.
It is a responsibility of local education agencies to find and identify McKinney students, he said, though students and families could also self-report. They are also required to create policies in order to remove academic barriers that a student living in these conditions might face, such as fines.
A student would qualify for the McKinney-Vento program if he or she is couch surfing, living in motels, emergency shelters or campgrounds, or living in a place not meant to be lived in such as a car, abandoned building, substandard housing, or bus or train station. Substandard housing refers to housing that has conditions like mold, lack of utilities or presents any other dangerous or hazardous condition.
While there have been some who think homelessness is decreasing in the state, homelessness among youth is actually on the rise, Ojeda said.
“One of the big reasons for that is the cost of living is going up, and things are becoming more and more expensive for families to be able to support themselves,” he said, adding that they are expecting to see more kids qualify this year due to the impacts of the pandemic.
Oftentimes, homeless students are thought of as unaccompanied, but there are many situations in which whole families are displaced and have nowhere to go.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put added stress on the situation.
“When the pandemic hit and schools started to shut down, our students needed somebody to be there for them, and oftentimes are liaisons were the connection between public services for our students and not having anywhere to go at all.”
During this time, Ojeda said they had to speak to city councils throughout the state to request that places such as restrooms at public parks remained open.
“As everything was shutting down, the reality is, half those students had nowhere to go to get any kind of hygiene whatsoever,” he said.
Those who are working as a liaison for the school district often put their own lives at risk to save students, he added, commending those people for the work they do for the community.
Mike Carr, the support services coordinator for at-risk students for the Washington County School District, who was at Dixie High School with a McKinney-Vento student, spoke about his experience as a liaison.
“I work with the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs chart,” he said. “And that very bottom foundation is basic needs, so as a student comes into our schools, (we) make sure that they have food, clothing and housing if we can help.”
He said they also work with nonprofits that provide backpacks and other school supplies to those in need as well as helping students get vaccines or documentation.
“So (when) that student enters the door, they look just like any other student, they feel like any other student. And we tell the teachers, ‘You know, you’re the next step up — to the safety and love and belonging.’ We say, ‘That student needs to know they are cared for, that you love them and that you accept them however they come.'”
Carr said it’s a privilege to have the position he has as the middle person between the family and the community to offer services.
Accompanying Carr was Lily, a McKinney-Vento student at Dixie High School, who Carr said is a hard worker and is one of the students they are assisting. She said they are helping her with transportation, food and clothes.
Ojeda told St. George News that the number of McKinney-Vento students is lower this year, not because there are fewer students without homes, but because districts were unable to identify those in need due to the schools shutting down in March.
“Usually, we would have a lot more time to identify students through the year, so any students we weren’t able to identify before schools closed, we likely never caught,” he said.
People are often surprised when they hear how many youths are living without a fixed residence, especially in places like Washington County.
“People are often stupefied when they see the numbers,” he said, “because they expect that that’s not happening here.”
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