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St. George • Children living in tents on Bureau of Land Management land, teens who have been kicked out of their homes by their own parents, and students who sometimes only ask for $1 to get home after school are just a few of the many situations Washington and Iron County school district's secondary education counselors face with homeless teens.
And one of the biggest issues is the misconception behind these faces, reports The Spectrum.
"I think there's a big feeling out there that people who are poor or homeless are there because of their own problems," said Brian Gunnell, Dixie Middle School counselor. "We do a big disservice to our society by labeling anybody who's poor or on welfare as lazy or it's because of their own problems. That's true sometimes, even with some of our parents here, but most of these people are just trying really hard to make things work."
One of those people is Beth, a 14-year-old freshman at Hurricane Middle School. Beth was kicked out of her home by her mother when she was only 12 years old, and Beth said she and her mom have always had a strained relationship. Her father was deported to Mexico when she was a young girl, so she's been moving around, living with distant relatives or friends of hers since then.
"You wake up every morning and you don't know if everything is going to be OK that day," Beth said. "I've been through so many houses, it's hard to have trust in people. I've stayed with people for months and months and they turn out to be not very good people."
With 939 homeless students in WCSD and 356 in ICSD, HMS counselor Tasha Rich said the majority of people in the southern Utah community don't know how big the homeless student problem is.
"If they don't work at a school or don't know someone, they just think it doesn't happen, and that's not true," Rich said.
Mike Carr, WCSD's homeless student liaison and support services coordinator, said a lot of homeless students are "doubled-up," which means they're living with more than one family in a single-family home or apartment.
"If you just think about what doubled up looks and feels like. All it takes is one argument, and they're out," Carr said. "And it's not a comfortable living situation."
Beth said leaving her brothers and sisters behind was the hardest.
"When I started bouncing around, the state would put me back with my mom," Beth said. "I would get used to taking care of the kids, and then my mom would say I had to leave again."
Beth took about a year and a half off from school while she was taking care of herself and finding places to live. She said she felt like she "dumbed out" after that period of time, but she felt differently about it since being at HMS. Beth said she tries her best to focus on school when she's at school.
Although clothing and food are immediate issues, needs that aren't visible to the naked eye also often plague homeless students.
"Imagine not going to class because you have a tooth that needs to get removed," said Steve Schofield, ICSD's director of at-risk programs. "That's a rough time. We're trying to motivate these students with academics, and the student hasn't taken a shower or eaten or brushed their teeth. Those are tough problems to deal with."
Similarly, once students reach high school, credits become a big issue. If students are missing required classes, it's hard for them to find the time, money and transportation to participate in makeup programs.
Stephanie Hulet, ICSD's homeless student liaison, said many students don't have the money to restore their credits in makeup classes.
"Or they want to take driver's ed, and that's $100, or they're behind on immunizations . It's things like that that would be huge to help them because you don't think about those things," Hulet said. "The food, hygiene products and clothes help, but there's also that backside."
"They're the hardest working kids we've got, we just only see them a couple of times per week because of their family situations," Gunnell said. "But when they're here, they try their hardest to make up for it. It's just so hard when you're missing that much school."
Secondary education students are "in between adults," Rich said. She said, sometimes, parents will treat their children like they're adults, like Beth.
Rather than hanging out with her friends after school or focusing on homework, Rich said Beth was doing research on renting apartments, and she was calling real estate agents and setting up appointments by herself.
"100 percent of the other kids here do not have that skill," Rich said. "But still, even as good as she is at being an adult, she's not ready. She's doing these adult things, but, at the same time, she can't get up for school because she's never been taught that."
For DMS students, Gunnell said the school is in a zone that has a lot of lower income housing areas and a lot of apartments. Free and reduced lunch at DMS is at 60 percent, compared to the 40 percent across the district.
In fact, DMS has the highest amount of homeless students in the entire district at 51 students, according to district data. Pine View Middle has 43 homeless students, and Dixie High School has 35, making it the high school with the highest homeless student population.
Gunnell said about a quarter of the school's population participates in pep groups that focus on skills poverty students typically need more instruction on. Middle schools in the district also participate in the Reality Store, which is a real-life, scenario-based activity for students to have the closest real-world experience of adulthood.
Carr said a homeless scenario was added to the exercise to bring more awareness to intergenerational poverty issues, and to also let students know that it could happen to them at any point in their lives.
One of Beth's biggest motivations is finishing school because she's seen family members drop out at early ages who "haven't gone far," and she wants to set herself up for success.
Her concern is legitimate, being that, according to the Department of Workforce Services, 45 percent of Washington County youth are at-risk of remaining in poverty as adults.
"Sometimes I'll get distracted and wonder if everything is going to be OK," Beth said. "Sometimes I get depressed about it at school."
Gunnell said homeless or at-risk students tend to bear a lot of the emotional burden of their families.
"A lot of times their lives are so chaotic at home, some of them don't know where they're going to sleep tonight, or they don't know what's going on with mom or if they'll even get to see her because their parents are working so much," Gunnell said.
Or, students can be distracted because they simply haven't eaten enough for the day. Beth said she typically only eats a small snack each day.
In secondary education, Carr said, the homeless population is mostly students who have gotten kicked out and are jumping around.
With some sort of screening process, Carr said he hopes the community will open their homes to homeless teenage students.
"I'd like to have a list of families who are willing to accept these homeless teenagers," Carr said. "There's getting more and more need that way. I think there's even more of that than I know of."
Additionally, bus passes, or even things for fun would help the older homeless students, and Rich said gift cards are more meaningful to them, since they get to pick the items themselves. And, while students don't need them all the time, activities like movie tickets would be great.
"If I were to give (Beth) a set of movie tickets, she would just say, 'oh,' " Rich said. "It wouldn't have even crossed her mind to go out and do something fun."
Editor's note: To protect the identity of the 14-year-old Hurricane Middle School student mentioned in this article, The Spectrum & Daily News has opted to not print her real name, choosing instead to refer to her as "Beth" for the purpose of this report.