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A seasonal reminder: Winter break doesn’t equate to celebration and relaxation for all students

Often it means entering a two-week period of instability in housing, in meals, in daily routine — the very things that youth need to feel secure.

Hiawatha homeless encampment
Two children are shown at the Hiawatha homeless encampment in August of this year.
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee

For many homeless and highly mobile youth, the upcoming winter break often means something very different from the gift-laden, family-activity filled or stress-free break from school that it does for many of their peers.

Often it means entering a two-week period of instability in housing, in meals, in daily routine — the very things that youth need to feel secure. In anticipation of this disruption, anxiety levels often rise, sometimes translating into behavior issues in the classroom.

So closing in on winter break, those who work closest with this particular student population and their families urge educators to be mindful of the unique stressors that the long winter break can trigger in students who can’t always afford to visit family over the holidays, or who are anxious about being away from adults and meals that they’ve come to depend on at school.

This time of year, here are some of the things that are top of mind for district homeless student liaisons, those who serve as the main coordinator of supports and services guaranteed under the federal McKinney-Vento Act. Likewise, they have some simple recommendations for ways that educators and community members can help support these students over the coming weeks.

An overview of Minnesota’s homeless student population

According to 2018 student data collected by the state Department of Education, 8,696 students across the state have been identified as homeless. However, that number only includes students who have been identified by Oct. 1 of this year, so it doesn’t capture the full scope of the need. Districts often add to this count, as students’ housing status changes throughout the year, or those who are already homeless are newly identified as such.

Charlene Briner, deputy commissioner at the state Department of Education, says the state works with data that’s about a year old. The most recent complete set of data she has shows the count from Oct. 1 of 2017. And it actually shows the first decrease in this particular student population in almost over a decade, she says.

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It’s hard to believe, because certainly the encampment and the subject of homelessness is top of mind for people, perhaps because it’s more visible, in ways that it hasn’t been before,” she said. “But for the previous decade, we’d been seeing an increase of about 14 percent per year, for students experiencing homelessness. What we saw last year was a drop of 9 percent, compared to the previous year. So we’re hopeful that when the numbers are crunched, that drop won’t be an anomaly.”

For homeless student liaisons working in the metro area, this recent drop in population may run counter to what they’re seeing on the ground. Margo Hurrle, the homeless liaison for the Minneapolis Public Schools district — which has served more than 3,000 homeless kids the past few years, roughly 10 percent of the district’s student body — wonders if the lack of affordable housing in Minnesota is skewing the count.

Based on her experience working with homeless students and families, the rotation of families into and out of shelters has slowed because, once they get in, people are staying in shelters longer. This might be lowering the annual numbers, she says.

The state count is further hampered by the fact that it’s not easy to identify families who are doubled up with friends or relatives because they can’t afford housing on their own. Schools also struggle to identify these students — who qualify as “homeless” under the McKinney-Vento Act — as well as those who may be living in hotels or motels.

It’s a challenge that district liaisons are working hard to address by training their colleagues to recognize the full scope of homelessness. In the Anoka-Hennepin School District, where Jessica Jasurda currently oversees a homeless student caseload of 875, she says staff across the district are “trained to identify warning signs of homelessness.

“That includes increased attendance concerns, frequent address changes, things like that,” she said. “This identification ensures students are connected with needed services and supports.”

In the Faribault Public Schools district, Margaret Gare is currently working with about 70 homeless students, who account for less than 2 percent of the district’s student body. As school staff have become better attuned to asking the right sorts of questions, she says, the count has grown.

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“[Homelessness] doesn’t look like what people think. That’s been an education portion for staff and individuals in our community,” she said. “You’re hard-pressed to figure out who’s homeless just by looking at them.”

A different perspective on winter break

Working at a Avalon, a charter school located in St. Paul, Stacey Meath oversees a homeless student caseload of about 10 students each year, on average. Looking ahead to winter break, she says the time off does present some unique challenges for these students — starting with the chatter at school about things like gifts, holiday travel and merriment.

“They maybe don’t have the money to buy gifts, or to get to their relatives’ house. Or maybe they have some challenges in their families and two weeks away from school can be really difficult, because school can be really safe for some of our students,” she said. “It’s just kind of feeling like you’re being left out a little bit because everybody has all this stuff going on and you don’t necessarily have all those things. And teenagers compare themselves to each other a lot — for better, for worse.”

Hurrle says that the holiday season can also increases parent stress. On top of the pressure to buy their kids gifts and provide a good holiday experience, many homeless parents are working one  and sometimes two jobs. And no school means they need to figure out alternative arrangements for their kids while they’re at work.

Some shelters don’t allow children to stay by themselves, or to be cared for by older siblings, she said. Even families who are doubled up “feel the crowdedness a little bit more” during the long winter break, she added, noting they run the risk of being outed as not being on the lease.

“I know we have some parents who are planning on having their kids go to the public library while they’re at work and hang out there, for lack of anywhere else they can think of to have them go,” she said.   

Keeping recent grads in mind this time of year, Hurrle adds that many young adults who’ve managed to find temporary housing at college find themselves in a pinch this time of year. When the dorms and cafeterias close down, they end up seeking out space at local shelters for a couple of weeks.

Katie Danielson, who works with about 400 to 450 homeless students each year in the Duluth Public Schools district, raises particular concerns about unaccompanied homeless youth during this time of year. Right now she has about 50 students who fit this profile, she says, explaining this includes students ages 15 and older who are homeless on their own. And each year, this segment of the homeless student population she works with continues to grow.

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“They’re often more lonely at this time of year because they don’t have that family to gather around. And they’re vulnerable as they look to create their own sense of family by seeking out others to connect with,” she said. “Some of those people may exploit them or have other agendas. And they don’t always recognize that.”

Gare sees the emotional support piece that falls away over break impact many of the homeless youth she works with as well.

“You build bonds with them and they’re very sad to leave for break,” she said. “I see more of the mental health piece — the depression and anxiety of coming to the break.”

Sometimes, these emotions can manifest into behavior issues. It’s important to place students’ behavior into context, says Vianney Blomgren, the homeless liaison for the Roseville Area Schools district.

I think it’s important to always educate our educators and all staff to be able to kind of have that grace of ‘We don’t know what they’re going through once they leave our school,’” she said. “A lot of times, these kids, they lash out in order to detach — to not feel — because who wants to feel that way?”

Ways to help fill the gap

Lots of schools take clothing donations to help outfit students with appropriate winter gear. And it’s not hard to find a toy drive or food shelf to support, or a shelter to volunteer at over the winter break. But there’s a whole lot more educators and community members can do to support homeless students during winter break.

Some of those considerations start in the classroom, before break even begins. Danielson reminds teachers that kids often know that they may not get any presents from their caregivers, a frustration that may result in them acting out in the classroom.

“Maybe teachers can expect to know that some hoarding or stealing or whatever is going to be happening, and to recognize the place that that behavior comes from,” she said.

She also has some advice on being more mindful of students’ family structure. For some kids, the adults they’ll be with over the break are shelter staff or foster families.

So if you’re making gifts in the classroom, to say that the gifts can be for anyone that they love or admire, rather than saying that it’s a gift for your mom, or your dad” gives youth permission to share their work with whomever they’re with, she said.

Hurrle says that in addition to collecting donations for things like holiday meals and toys to give away to families in need, she and her colleagues are also busy curating a list of community-based extracurricular activities that students can partake in over the winter break, while school is shut down.

“There’s lots of programming that’s going on at community centers and parks that is ramped up over the break, knowing that kids will be looking for a fun place to go and something to do – so spreading that information,” she said.  

She says they also talk with shelters about providing more recreational and entertainment opportunities for the children, and about “bending rules on who can babysit and how old the kids have to be to stay alone in the shelter” for this two-week span in winter.

For those looking to donate in a more personalized way, Meath says one year she worked with a family that wanted to outfit each homeless student with a reusable bag filled with treats and activities that kids could both share with their family and keep for themselves over the winter break.

Meath also suggests that any parents with school-aged children consider stepping into public space, like community centers, where homeless youth are most likely to spend their time, to ensure they have an opportunity to engage with their classmates.

“Even just taking your own kids there and making it really fun and hanging out with kids that are there” can make the winter break experience more enjoyable for homeless youth, she said.

Extending a bid for connection even further, she says parents can encourage their kids to invite other kids over who maybe don’t have a lot — just to go sledding, or to come over and have hot chocolate.

“Welcoming people into your home is really wonderful,” she said.