• Deidra Thomas Murray

      By Deidra Thomas-Murray

    At St. Louis Public Schools, we ended the 2014-2015 academic year with 5,085 students, pre-K through 12, who identified as homeless. With an enrollment of a little more than 24,000 students, the district’s homeless students equaled roughly 21 percent of its total population. In 2009, the number was 6 percent, with just 1,708 SLPS students identified as homeless.

    Arriving in St. Louis, by way of Hurricane Katrina, homeless in 2005 and as a foster parent to more than 178 children, I understand — firsthand — the urgent need for services and the burdens SLPS homeless students face. In my position, as the SLPS Office of Students-In-Transition director, I interact daily with students and their families who are homeless for various reasons.

    Each situation is different. Circumstances include unemployment, domestic violence, house fires, natural disasters, incarceration or death of parents, and these tragedies just scratch the surface.

    Homelessness is defined as living in uninhabitable housing, lacking permanent arrangements, or being in transition from a temporary residence.

    In spite of the students’ living arrangements, they are still expected to attend school, be on time and learn every day. Each student is different, and many rise above their circumstances. However, it is a daily battle. Homeless students are literally fighting to survive physically, mentally and academically.

    Sometimes, we fail to understand or recognize the residual effects of homelessness on a day-to-day basis, including hunger, poor health, trauma, physical and sexual abuse, anger, violence, self-medication, depression and aggression. We also overlook the effects in a school setting such as poor study habits, poor attendance, behavioral challenges, underdeveloped social skills, special and alternative education and post-traumatic stress disorder.

    St. Louis families need our help. Many of the common effects of homelessness have a direct correlation to pain for both the student and family. For most SLPS parents who are homeless, responding to their children’s basic needs often requires major assistance.

    Most educators’ focus is on teaching not healing, but that is to be expected. Teachers are not clinicians; social workers are, but there is a limited number of them in comparison to the percentage of homeless students.

    At SLPS, to address this epidemic, we took a step back, regrouped and came up with workable solutions that we believed would create an environment conducive to learning for all students. It is difficult for students to focus when they are hungry or hurting.

    People ask what do “workable solutions” look like. They look like a meeting in the middle; they look like compromise; and they look like teaching on purpose with a purpose. In an attempt to counter some of the impacts, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act was initially signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1987. Since then, the act has been reauthorized several times. It ensures educational rights and protections for youth experiencing homelessness.

    It is no surprise that homeless students face unique barriers when accessing educational programs. For students in foster care, they also lack the necessary support to access higher education as they age out of the system. For SLPS students, we advocate on their behalf with assistance for federal financial aid, provide academic tutors and ensure each student has a Students-In-Transition Education After High School handbook, which outlines, in-depth, the various stages to successfully transition from high school to college.

    Student homelessness is a major problem throughout the country. The United States faces an immediate, unprecedented crisis due to a spike in the number of homeless students and a lack of shelters for an ever-increasing number of homeless families.

    Federal financial support has struggled to keep pace with the rapid increase of U.S. homeless students. Fortunately, in St. Louis Public Schools, we have formed an array of meaningful relationships with the local clergy, Demetrious Johnson Charitable Foundation; Dr. Robert H. Koff Scholarship; John and Eva Dunn Scholarship; Lil Bit Foundation; St. Louis Public Schools Foundation; Assistance League of STL; SLMPD Juvenile Division; and local universities, students, parents and shelters. They are committed to making a difference in the lives of our students.

    Additionally, the Students-In-Transition Office has a foundation, which is a subset of the St. Louis Public Schools Foundation. Donations can be made to assist the homeless population through the foundation. Many SLPS families are in need of immediate assistance. Help us help them. Call 314-345-5750.

    Deidra Thomas-Murray manages the St. Louis Public Schools Office of Students-in-Transition.