The 5 Percent

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Last week, the Lowell School Committee and anyone who was listening to the School Committee’s meeting heard the LPS McKinney-Vento report. The report enumerates homeless students in the Lowell Public Schools as defined by McKinney-Vento act:

The McKinney-Vento act defines homeless students as students who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence due to economic hardship, loss of housing or a similar reason.

– March 1, 2019 Report to Lowell School Committee

As of March 1, that number in Lowell was 982 – and actually climbed a bit from there due to students displaced by two fires in the City. The reported number of homeless children, however, represents 5 percent of Lowell Public Schools’ students.

This is a heart-breaking situation, and it is one that I, a former teacher, was aware of when I was a teacher. Nearly every year in which I taught, I had one – and sometimes more – students who were identified as homeless. They lived in shelters, they lived temporarily with a neighbor or relatives, and yes, some of them were living in a vehicle until their situation was discovered by Social Workers.

This brings me to the point of writing this entry: in our public schools, we rely on Social Workers, Counselors, and Health professionals to help us not only to identify which students and families are in trauma, but to help mitigate the circumstances in which they find themselves. In our public schools, with 5 percent of a given student population in crisis due to housing uncertainty, that is a massive responsibility for which there are some, but not many solutions.

Lowell’s McKinney-Vento report sparked a lot of conversations, as well as people asking “what can we do”? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know our school social workers, with caseloads stretched beyond reasonableness, are a key response to students and families living the trauma of becoming homeless.

With burgeoning caseloads, our schools need more professional, trained school counselors, social workers, and wrap-around services to support the homeless in our midst. That, of course, takes a monetary investment.

You may have heard me state that the outdated Foundation Budget calculations, now over 25 years old, are shortchanging Lowell Public Schools by $42 million each year. That is not just a guess on my part, but an estimate based on real numbers that come from Mass. Budget & Policy Center. School funding is a crisis for which the solution – fully funding schools by updating ridiculously outdated funding forumulae – should be a priority.

Our community’s children cannot wait.

Homeless children and faces of poverty

In case you missed it, here is a link to Scott Pelley’s outstanding and heartbreaking story about the effects of homelessness on our children. As a teacher in a high poverty urban public school, I know what he is reporting is true. At least two of my students began the year in hotels; in previous years one of my students lived in the U Haul carrying all their worldly possessions after they were evicted. Some children have infrequently shared that they did not have electricity as the service had been shut off. Still others come to school and scuffle for food, for breakfast items that were not consumed by their peers. Clearly they do not have enough to eat.

The most jaw-dropping piece of information Mr. Pelley shared was that the United States – the land of plenty – considers a family to be living below the poverty level if they are a family of four with $22,000 per year. Who can do that; who can do that with 4 people?

For me, this fact points to the fallacy of statistical information as applied by our government. If the poverty level is defined as 4 people living on $22,000 each year; there are many more families in actual poverty than our government track with this skewed classification. $22,000 is not a living income for a single person – at least here in the Northeast – that amount applied to 4 is beyond the pale.

Recently I read an article stating that the income gap between rich and poor is the widest it has been in 80 years. The “recovery” has not trickled down to those living on the margins. Social services are facing cuts in budgets and services that will only make this worse.

I do not hold out much hope for our government to provide a safety net for children of poverty. These children sadly seem to know better than I, that the situation is not hopeful. That, in this land of plenty, they are faceless and nameless, and sadly, powerless.